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Friday, August 26, 2016

James Garner in HOUR OF THE GUN - Western Movie Summer Part 4

HOUR OF THE GUN (John Sturges, 1967) is in the lineup Saturday Aug 27th for TCM's "Summer Under the Stars" tribute to James Garner, and I'm pleased to contribute this post to the "Summer Under the Stars" blogathon hosted by Kristen of Journeys in Classic Film.  

James Garner (left) as Wyatt Earp and Jason Robards as Doc Holliday in HOUR OF THE GUN

Doc Holliday:  "I hear that the Chamber of Commerce has put up $20,000 reward money (for the Clanton gang)."
Wyatt Earp: "For arrest and conviction, not 'dead or alive.'  Not your style, Doc."
Doc Holliday:  "For that kind of money I can be as law-abiding are."

It's fitting that in the summer in which I've devoted to watching and studying Westerns, I write my final post of the season on this late Western, when filmmakers have begun to deconstruct its vaunted heroes.  In a few short years the genre would be almost entirely given over to the 'revisionist' or 'anti'-Western, in response to the Vietnam War and the political and societal disillusionment replacing what was typically glorification of American optimism and romanticism in the classic Western.   In HOUR OF THE GUN, audiences are, at least on the surface, in familiar territory with Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and their cohort, the historical western figures whose story had been told and retold throughout the 20th century.  But we are clued in at once that this one will be a bit different:  the film starts with the Earp cohort marching down a dusty main street toward the infamous OK Corral, punctuated with a pounding drum in the soundtrack.  The legendary gunfight just initiates the action, and the film's narrative is all about what happens after.  
Doomed members of the Clanton gang wait to meet Earp & Co.
For a legendary 1881 occurrence in Tombstone, Arizona that has been the subject of dozens of films and television episodes, it's hard to imagine a time when no one knew about Earp & Co. Yet the 'gunfight at OK Corral' had only become part of American lore in 1920, when the real Wyatt Earp, retired from his life as a lawman, began to hang around Hollywood and tell his story to anyone who would listen. Among others, John Ford listened.  In fact, one of the best, albeit fictionalized, account of Wyatt Earp's adventures is John Ford's MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946) starring Henry Fonda.  Fonda as an actor was an early inspiration for James Garner, when the two shared the stage in Garner's first professional acting appearance in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. Speaking about Fonda in his memoir, Garner said, "I admired him so much I even mimicked him.  In MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, he did a little seated two-step in place by leaning back in a chair and pushing off a post....I stole it for SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! (Burt Kennedy, 1969).

When Garner made this film, he was already a big star, playing the leading role in the Western humor series 'Maverick', and in films such as DUEL AT DIABLO (1966).  He had the experience of working with director John Sturges in THE GREAT ESCAPE. A full decade earlier Western specialist Sturges made the more conventional movie about the gunfight, unsurprisingly named GUNFIGHT AT THE OK CORRAL, starring Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp and Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday.  HOUR OF THE GUN was the sequel, and quite different in tone and theme. Garner jumped at the chance to work with Sturges again, and accepted the role without having read the script, and years later acknowledged it was a different sort of a Western.  Here, Earp is a conflicted lawman who first must endure being put on trial for murder after the gunfight, supported by Ike Clanton, played by the inimitable Robert Ryan, in a unfortunately small role. Then when one brother is maimed and another murdered, he begins to step outside the law in an increasing vendetta on Clanton and his gang.  The film narrative follows closely the pursuer and the pursued until the inevitable end -- Earp riding to new adventures and doomed Holliday left in a sanitarium.
Robert Ryan as Ike Clanton (seated) as a witness for the prosecution in Earp's trial
Garner is a steely presence here, embodying Earp with a quiet desperation without ever bending that backbone.  To me, he is a more believable, and human, Earp than Lancaster, who seems a bit stiff, and blustery in the role in the earlier film.  Garner does a good job with Edward Anhalt's script that asks us to look at our heroes more realistically, with motives not entirely pure or actions not always justifiable.  Yet as good as Garner is, Jason Robards was just so much fun to watch in the showier role of Doc Holliday.  He sunk his teeth into the scenery, staggered around the set, emitted witticisms and contributed wry humor to what is overall a dark picture.  Apparently Robards off screen was not unlike Holliday.  In his memoir Garner revealed that Robards enjoyed being on location in Mexico a bit too much (a local bar and whorehouse were implicated) and "was never on the set when you needed him." Sturges, however, knew where to find him, and one day, after another late appearance, dressed Robards down publicly, after which he improved his behavior.  

In another departure from the classic Western formula, there are no women characters.  Literally, none, among the credited cast.  Does anyone know if there is another Western in the classic era without the good woman from back East, or the fallen woman who seeks redemption, or a noble native American woman to redeem the male hero?  I'd be interested.  The film is solid, and Garner and Robards are terrific, but the lack of development of the minor characters makes the narrative drag at times and I found it easy to lose track of who is pursuing whom.   Lucien Ballard's cinematography is fine, and the soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith has a perfectly-suited mournful, elegiac quality.  

As an epilogue, I was reminded of a personal connection to this film from many years ago.  As a Star Trek devotee I remember as a child watching, and being freaked out by, a rerun of the original series' third season episode called "Spectre of the Gun".  This aired in 1968, one year after the movie, and the show's producers were inspired enough by the Sturges film to give their episode almost the same name.  They succeeded in crafting a spooky, surreal retelling of the legendary gunfight in which the main crew of the Starship Enterprise are forced into embodying the Clanton gang against the ghosts of Earp and Holliday, thus facing mortal danger.   This might be the creepiest presentation of the famous gunfight ever recorded -- watch the final few minutes here:

Don't forget to check out the others posts for the "Summer Under the Stars" blogathon, all conveniently collected here.

James Garner, with Jon Winokur, The Garner Files, Simon & Schuster, 2001.
Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation, Atheneum Press, 1992.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

An Oscar for Ethel: NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART Film Review

It is an unusual film in many ways: the directorial debut of author and playwright Clifford Odets (and only one of two for him), an unusual dramatic role for Cary Grant, and the return to Hollywood of stage queen Ethel Barrymore after a twelve-year hiatus.  The film, of course, is NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART (1944). In celebration of Ethel's 137th birthday, I'm pleased to present this post as part of the 2nd Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, hosted by Crystal of The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.
Ethel is someone that I will admit to putting on a pedestal.  Whenever I'm having a bad day, or need to calm my nervousness and take a risk, I think of her.  That's because my mother told me that, when  she was young, her father encouraged her to 'do her best Ethel Barrymore' in face of trying circumstances.  That stuck with me.  For my grandfather's generation, there was probably no other actress who so embodied excellence in the art of acting.  For those who haven't seen any of her films, I can attest--she was the real thing.
Young Ethel Barrymore
Clifford Odets
I eagerly approached NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART precisely because it was Ms. Barrymore's only Oscar.  I found it often moving, with complex, well-drawn characters, if not wholly satisfying.  The filmmakers went to great lengths to ensure Barrymore would star.  In fact, David Hempstead, producer at RKO Pictures, bought the rights to the novel by Richard Llewellyn, and offered the role of 'Ma Mott' to Barrymore, who turned it down, thinking the novel wouldn't make a good film.  She was reluctant also because her previous film, RASPUTIN & THE EMPRESS, was not a happy experience, despite starring along with both brothers, Lionel & John.  When Clifford Odets was given the job to adapt the novel for the screen, Barrymore softened.  The problem then was her commitment to a touring production of the stage play The Corn is Green during the time filming would commence.  So RKO simply paid the play's producer to take a six-week hiatus.

Barrymore felt comfortable with Odets as director, because of his stage credentials and his deference to her.  Despite its studio production, the film was set in 1930s London, in the working class East End. As widow "Ma" Mott, Barrymore owns a junk shop and barely gets by, no thanks to her vagabond and often AWOL son, Ernie Mott, played by Grant.  Ernie can't seem to stay long enough to take charge of the shop, and there is an uncomfortable truce between mother and son.  Having recently returned from a jaunt to who knows where, this time Ernie is facing for the first time some very unpleasant consequences of leaving again -- Ma is now dying of cancer, and he falls in love with beautiful Ada, as a vulnerable young woman trying to make up for some bad decisions but not quite succeeding.  Things get even more complicated when both Ma and Ernie separately get mixed up with the criminal element.  We wonder if anyone in the film will have a happy ending.
Barrymore as 'Ma Mott' has not had an easy life.  
Grant in an early scene
I've read some commentary claiming that Grant didn't fit the part of a young cockney wastrel, or that he was too old (at just over 40) for the part.  In fact, in Richard Schickel's biography of Grant, the author quotes Grant as feeling that way himself, although he loved playing the role.  For me, he was perfect; the years wore on him well, convincing us he really had thrown away half of his life and it was beginning to catch up to him psychologically. There was never any doubt that underneath his obvious immaturity and indecision he was a good guy--when he first appears on the scene all the neighbors are truly thrilled to see him.  Grant used his (natural) cockney accent to good effect, and was quite subtle and powerful in the more emotional scenes.  Ultimately if he didn't realize the full impact of the character, as Schickel suggests, due to holding back a bit too much, he was believable as a flawed hero.
Luminous June Duprez in NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART
The cast of supporting actors was also mostly very good - Barry Fitzgerald as the crusty aging fellow who lost a son in WWI; June Duprez, the English-born actress as Ada, lovely, vulnerable, but tough.  Jane Wyatt was a bit too angelic in her self-sacrificing love for Grant. I was disappointed that normally supremely interesting and reliable Dan Duryea had a throwaway part as a shopkeeper and had a cringe-worthy accent in the few lines he uttered.
Barry Fitzgerald and Grant have a pint together
With the Salvation Army hat
Barrymore's screen presence was a good match for Grant.  Her accent, at least to my ear, was just right, and considering her acting chops and experience, not surprising.  Having been away from the screen so long she apparently was very nervous, nailing rehearsals but losing confidence during actual filming.  She regained the confidence she needed when in secret, Odets starting filming the rehearsals and playing them back to her to show her how good she was.  She relished disappearing into the role, and wearing a 75 cent hat from the Salvation Army that Odets trampled on to make it all the more 'lived in.'  The final scene in which Barrymore and Grant appear together was so convincing that I couldn't hold back the tears.
A heart-rending scene with Grant
What didn't completely work for me was the journey into film noir territory in the second half of the film with the gangsters, car chases and dimly lit scenes, when the film seemed to be going along quite well as a character-driven melodrama.  The film also got quite 'preachy' about values associated with wartime sacrifice and morality, with the clouds of WWII ominously and quite obviously appearing near the end.  More liberal editing and shorter overall run time would have been welcome.

The film received good reviews, and the normally snarky Bosley Crowther of the New York Times was effusive with his praise: "The poignant and wistful story of the Cockney wanderer, Ernie Mott, and his sad and wonderful mother and their ever-hungry search for some sort of spiritual fulfillment has been rendered in this film with all of the beauty and feeling that one could hopefully expect.".(NY Times, 11/18/1944). The film eventually lost money -- it was apparently too much of a downer for mass audiences -- but won Barrymore her Oscar, which stunned her.  When asked if she thought it was fair for her to have won when others had gone to Hollywood earlier and toiled longer there, she paused, and then replied, "Perhaps they shouldn't have gone."  Her success prompted her to move to Hollywood and devote many more years to the medium--and we are the better for it.
Barrymore with her Oscar and Broderick Crawford (1945)
James Kotsilibas-Davis, The Barrymores: The Royal Family in Hollywood, 1981, Crown Publishers.
Richard Schickel, Cary Grant--A Celebration, 1999, Applause Books.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Carey Family in the John Ford Western Universe

In 1947 Harry Carey Jr. had just finished his first picture with director John 'Uncle Jack' Ford.  He was hanging around the set when he saw a surprising sight -- his father's horse Sunny, and actor / stuntman Cliff Lyons dressed in his father's iconic black western attire.  Ford said to young Carey, "Go home, kid, you're not supposed to see this."  As Carey left the set to go home, he broke down in sobs.  This was the filming of the picture's dedication to the recently passed Harry Carey Senior. As shown after the opening credits of 3 GODFATHERS, with the tune 'Goodbye, Old Paint, I'm Leaving Cheyenne" playing in reference to Carey's iconic screen character 'Cheyenne Harry', I doubt there is a more elegant and meaningful torch passing from one generation to the next in film:

[This post celebrates the history of cinema as part of the 'Movie History Project' blogathon, hosted by Ruth of Silver Screenings, Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, and Fritzi of Movies Silently.  Check out their blogs from Aug 5-10th for a rich, diverse and entertaining look at Hollywood history.]

I was first introduced to Harry Carey Sr. by accident -- one of the 'extras' on the Criterion issue of STAGECOACH that I purchased was the silent film thought lost:  BUCKING BROADWAY, with John Ford directing Carey.  Initially thinking I wouldn't enjoy it, I couldn't turn away.  The combined genius of Ford, a director learning his craft, and Carey, who had as compelling, natural and nuanced screen presence as any of the silent greats, made it.  Sadly, of over 20 films they made together, there is only one other Ford-Carey silent film existing, STRAIGHT SHOOTING, their first feature.  As I learned more about Carey, I came to appreciate that there may not a John Ford as we know him today without him.  The intersection of the Carey family's lives and careers with that of Ford, is one of the fascinating and fruitful contribution to the Western film genre, spanning six decades of history.
Harry Carey Sr.
Young Olive Golden Carey
Henry DeWitt Carey II got his start far from the west -- he was born in Harlem, NY in 1878 into an upper middle class family.  He attended law school at NYU, but was kicked out for a prank involving female underwear (!).  He turned to acting and writing plays, and was hired by D.W. Griffith, and eventually by Carl Laemmle at Universal, where he spent several years making Westerns, which were very much in vogue in the early silent era.  According to Scott Eyman's Ford bio, in 1916 Carey met Ford at Universal, and was instantly impressed with his imagination and proficiency with the camera.  Ford was only 21.  Carey requested of Laemmle that Ford direct his next picture, and the collaboration was born.  Ford said of Carey at that time "Carey tutored me in those early years, sort of brought me along." They made 16 shorts together, with Carey starring as adventurous, somewhat dangerous, cowboy "Cheyenne Harry."  Carey often shared directing duties as well.  About this time actress Olive Golden, 18 years his junior, came into his life, and they married in 1916.  The newlyweds and Ford shared a small apartment initially, as their working relationship and friendship grew, and then fraternized in the Carey ranch in Newhall, California as Careys began to live a truly Western lifestyle.  According to Olive, many ideas for the Ford-Carey pictures were 'dreamed up around the wood stove in the kitchen' at Newhall.  As Olive was giving birth to Harry Carey Jr., the two got drunk on Mellwood brand whiskey waiting on the successful delivery.  (Later, Ford, when in one of his cantankerous moods, would call Jr."Mellwood").
Harry Carey with Harry Carey Jr.
Harry Carey's acting style was very natural -- in contrast to the more typical theatrical style of the early silent era.  His personality was tough, his looks rugged and dark.  But he projected a natural warmth and depth of emotion beneath that Ford tapped into. STRAIGHT SHOOTING showed Carey tormented over his potential role in dispatching the family of farmers who interfere with the ranching hegemony, and after some bloodshed, ultimately he changes sides and confronts the threat.
Carey in STRAIGHT SHOOTING with his iconic arm pose.
John Ford
He was a star, although a less popular one at the time compared with the likes of Tom Mix and William S. Hart.  A falling out with Ford around 1920 ended their professional collaboration.  The origins of the split seem to be buried forever; Carey Jr. said his father refused to talk about it, although he admitted in his later years his father would occasionally 'rant' about Ford's less admirable qualities.  Eyman references a potential issue about pay and equity, and mentioned that they did maintain an off-again/on-again friendship.  While Ford's star continued to rise, Carey's seemed to stagnate, and although he transitioned into the talking era well, his voice an authoritative deep baritone, he mainly starred in distinctly low-budget B westerns.  In a couple of those that I've seen, WAGON TRAIL and THE NIGHT RIDER, he adds interest and gravitas to the often melodramatic goings on.

Harry Carey Sr. in
In bigger budget pictures, he won mostly secondary roles.  A notable exception was MGM's first 'on-location' blockbuster TRADER HORN (1931), where he plays the lead.  (I admit to not being able to watch this one, because of the reported rampant mistreatment of animals during filming). Olive Carey, who had taken a long break from acting to raise her two children, appeared in a small role, but only made $300 for her work in horrific conditions (Star Edwina Booth contracted malaria and nearly died).  Carey later won an Oscar for his small role as quietly supportive Senate President in the Frank Capra/James Stewart classic MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939).  Long-time friend and collaborator George Hively said about Carey "He was a warm, warm man. Remember the character he portrayed in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON? That was Harry Carey."

Harry Carey Jr.
Despite the continued friendship, Ford was not initially an encouraging influence on young Carey Jr., whose red hair earned him the lifelong nickname 'Dobe.'  Ironically the young man's first film appearance was with Howard Hawks, in the classic RED RIVER, a film in which Carey Sr. also had a small role near the end.  The two did not share a scene.

John Ford is best known today for his classic sound Westerns beginning with the 1939 Best Picture Oscar nominee STAGECOACH, which gave John Wayne his shot at stardom.  Ford told complex tales with breathtaking beauty, using stunning outdoor shots and well-drawn characters, emphasizing community, honor and heroism, often with healthy doses of humor. He used a group of actors he liked and trusted, referred to as the 'John Ford Stock Company' and did not give allegiance to any one studio.  He relished the independence often accorded him.  When Harry Carey died in 1947 of lung cancer and its complications, Ford, and also John Wayne, who had become an admirer and friend of the elder Carey, were both present.  Not too long before he died, Carey Jr., recalled, his father told him that Ford would only hire young Carey in a film after he died " will (work for Ford)...--not till after I croak-- but then you will.  You can bet on it."  Shortly thereafter came 3 GODFATHERS -- and sure enough, Jr. was offered a starring role, along with Wayne and Pedro Armendariz.  As a film it's not in Ford's top echelon, but it's stirring in its Christian allegorical themes, appropriate somehow for the film that signaled the passing of the acting baton from the father to the son.

That association with Ford, built on many years of family friendship and loyalty, cemented the Western career of the younger Carey.  He had initially hoped on being a singer, but that didn't turn out. (You can hear him sing in 3 GODFATHERS, a pleasant enough voice). While 'Dobe' worked in the same film genre as his father, he projected a starkly contrasting screen character. Carey Sr. was dark, Jr. was a very light red-head.  All boyish enthusiasm and naivete, he rarely stole a scene and was more or less content with his supporting roles.  He was fearful of Ford, who was well known for his eccentric and tyrannical ways on and off set, yet he grew to love him.  His memoir brims with humorous exploits with the Ford crew, including Wayne, friend Ben Johnson, Ward Bond, and the rest.  Despite working with young Carey on a few pictures, it took Ford time to trust his acting abilities, and for SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, he hired actor Arthur Shields to coach him, and ultimately help him get into the character of the secondary role he played.
Carey Jr. with Wayne in SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949)
Carey Jr. did not only make Westerns with Ford -- he relished his roles in two non-Westerns, MISTER ROBERTS, with Henry Fonda, and THE LONG GRAY LINE, with Tyrone Power and Maureen O'Hara.  The last Ford film he appeared in he wasn't even credited -- it was CHEYENNE AUTUMN, and he and Ben Johnson were apparently paid mostly to ride their horses together on location at critical moments.  Both he and his mother Olive transitioned into television roles, often in the Western genre, and both lived into their early nineties.  Harry Carey Jr. died in December 2012, approximately 100 years after his father broke into the picture business.

In Ford's Western masterpiece from the 1950s, THE SEARCHERS, the entire Carey family had their time in the spotlight.  'Dobe' Carey was on hand again playing a young man from the village, Brad Jorgenson, who is full of hate for the Comanches who murdered his sweetheart.  His mom Mrs. Jorgenson is played by Olive Carey.  Harry Carey Sr. made an 'appearance' through the assistance of an old friend:  At the very end of the film, after John Wayne brings his lost niece home to the loving arms of Olive's 'Mrs. Jorgenson' and family, he was filled with emotion thinking of Harry Sr.  As Olive looked on off camera, in the famous shot framed in the dark doorway, Wayne reached over with his left arm and held his right above the elbow, in the way Harry Carey often did, in a poignant tribute, before walking slowly away.

The Carey family collaborations with Ford yielded among the best of the Western genre over 50 years in Hollywood.  Their legacy remains alive in that genre, which still is pertinent today.  As Robert Warshow wrote:  "The movies in which the Westerner played out his role preserve for us the pleasures of a complete and self-contained drama--and one which still effortlessly crosses the boundaries which divide our culture."

Many of Harry Carey Sr.'s  films are on Youtube, here's a few:

For further perspective on the Careys, check out this terrific post by blogger Caftan Woman.

(1) Carey, Harry Jr. Company of Heroes -- my Life as an Actor in the John Ford Stock Company.  Taylor Publishing, 2013.
(2) Eyman, Scott, Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford, Simon & Schuster, 1999.
(3) Bogdanovich, Peter, 'Directed by John Ford', documentary from 1971.
(4) Kitses, Jim, Horizons West, British Film Institute Publishing, 2004.
(5) Warshow, Robert, "The Westerner" in The Immediate Experience, Harvard University Press, latest edition 2001.