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Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Alan Ladd blazes down the (Western) trail with 'Branded' (1950)

September 3rd marks the birthday of one of my favorite old Hollywood stars, Alan Ladd. To celebrate, I'm pleased to contribute this post to 'The Man Who Would Be Shane: The Alan Ladd Blogathon," hosted by Gabriela at Pale Writer. Check out all the great posts this week HERE.

By 1950 when Branded came around, Alan Ladd was already a superstar. After tooling around in bit parts, he'd burst forth in 1942 in This Gun For Hire, in a noir anti-hero role, and his on-screen spark with co-star Veronica Lake prompted Paramount to pair them in multiple noir/adventure tales over the next few years. During this time though, Paramount was casting about for more properties to feature their cash cow, and Westerns seemed like a good match for Ladd's stoic tough-guy-with-a-sensitive-soul persona. His natural athleticism and comfort with horses (he owned his own ranch) could be put to good use. The first Western Ladd made was Whispering Smith (1948) and when it succeeded the next one wasn't far behind.

In Branded, Ladd embraces the Western with renewed gusto, and blazed open the Western trail that was to lead to many film successes in the 1950s. While nobody would put this one above his most iconic film, Shane, which would come in 1953, it's an altogether worthwhile piece of cinematic entertainment and in my personal top-five Ladd films. As in Shane, Ladd's character is a gunfighter with a murky past, also with a single, meaning-packed name: Choya (derived from cholla--a prickly cactus native to Mexico and the southwest U.S.).
Don't mess with me: Alan Ladd in Branded's opening scene
The novel Montana Rides by Evan Evans was adapted for the screen by Sydney Boehm and Cyril Hume, and Rudolph Maté was assigned to direct. Maté, who had been a renowned cinematographer, had recently made his limited foray into directing, but all his previous films were black and white dramas. Though the photography credit goes to Charles B. Lang, Jr., I imagine Maté had a lot to say about shot composition. Regardless, the breathtaking Technicolor views of the Arizona canyon country grounded the film in the rugged West, even if the narrative action pla in Texas near the Mexican border.

The time period is never specifically stated in the film, but seems to be consistent with a mid-late 19th century when the West was still a rough place for the white newcomers to the territory. Unscrupulous fortune seekers roamed around threatening ranchers and gunfighters challenged the establishment of an orderly society in small towns. It's this environment that we're thrown into after the opening credits have rolled -- we meet Choya, who's been holed up in a store trying to evade a posse, and with guns blazing makes a daring escape with his only friends (his guns) and kin (his horse). He's tracked down in the rugged country side by Leffingwell (Robert Keith) and convinced to go in with him on a con--for the promise of a fortune, Choya's to impersonate the long lost son of wealthy rancher Lavery (Charles Bickford). He's even tatooed with a birthmark to match that of the son, who was kidnapped at five years old.
Choya getting a tattoo on his right shoulder by "Tattoo" (John
Berkes). Leffingwell (Robert Keith) makes sure the design is right.
Choya shows up at the ranch, and by acting the tough but hard-working cynic, he earns a job as a ranch hand and when the moment is right, he lets himself be discovered as missing Richard Lavery. There are complications, of course, including the fact that Choya can't help but be attracted to his new "sister," Ruth (Mona Freeman). Additionally, the sleazy Leffingwell has been revealed to be the kidnapper, having apparently concocted this plot over 25 years earlier and sold the real Richard Lavery to a Mexican jefe, Rubriz (Joseph Calleia). Richard has no recollection of his birth family, and is now living as Tonio Rubriz (Peter Hansen). Of course these dilemmas are all solved in a tidy 104 minutes, but only after an extended chase sequence through the streams, canyons and caves along the border, and nail-biting confrontations and 'come-to-Jesus' moments.
Choya meets Rubriz (Joseph Calleia).
Watching this, it seemed to me that Ladd was comfortable being that tough guy spitting nails at his antagonists, and showing off his strong lithe body wrestling or attempting to break a young colt, while also enjoying being stretched to act in more subtle ways. In the scene in which he watches his new 'mother' (an excellent Selena Royle) get emotional after it dawns on her she's looking at her lost son, his discomfort at his deception is evident in his expression and body language. In the Alan Ladd documentary The Real Quiet Man, co-star Mona Freeman commented on Ladd's sensitivity. "He didn't always realize it himself...he was sensitive, and there was a great gentleness about him."
Does Choya want to go through with his mistaken identity deception?
While overall Ladd isn't allowed to stray too far from his handsome leading man presence, I particularly liked those scenes in which he's sporting facial scruff, been dunked in a river, or dragged through the canyon dust. It's a way he's liberated from the confining image that dogged him much of his career, even while it made him box office gold for many years. It's evident he's having a blast making this film. According to Freeman, he was full of gags and fun on set, relaxed and enjoying himself. He did, however, show tremendous deference to the veteran Charles Bickford, even relentlessly trying to beg off a crucial fisticuffs scene until Paramount execs forced the shoot.
Ladd seems to be double-fisted with the guns in this movie.
Another plus for the film is a strong supporting cast, especially Bickford and Freeman, who has just the right blend of sweetness and spunk. Joseph Calleia hams it up a bit, but I can still buy him as a Mexican bandit chief. Robert Keith is perfection as the scheming, murderous Leffingwell who keeps appearing at all the wrong times determined to get what he wants. Peter Hansen made his film debut here, before becoming a reliable TV star. He and Ladd became good friends making the film, and Ladd cast him in a few of his later pictures he produced for Warner Bros.
Ruth Lavery (Mona Freeman) and Choya negotiate their relationship
Unlike other Westerns in which the history and politics of time and place are dominant themes, here the story is a melodrama, and could have easily been adapted for a different setting. What's really being explored here is the process of personal discovery -- and the meaning of family. The film illuminates many angles on this theme without bludgeoning the audience with it. Every character is alone with their struggles, in many ways, and the rugged landscape both reflects and intensifies those struggles. We know that at the film's end when most characters attain a bit of respite and the understanding they're looking for, it's probably only temporary as the next journey of survival is around a future corner.

Don't forget to read more great blog posts about Alan Ladd and his films here!

8 comments:

  1. I haven't seen it yet. Thanks for the review!

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  2. I loved this Jocelyn. Your attention to detail in regards to Alan’s performance and experiences whilst making the film are utterly delightful. I particularly liked your description of some of the action as “come to Jesus” scenes. I also think this film has a great performance from Alan and did indeed allow him to break away somewhat from his set screen persona. I wish he’d been given the opportunity to do so more.
    Thanks so much for contributing to my Blogathon 🤠

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    1. Thank you! It was my pleasure to join and also meet another fan of Mr. Ladd. I agree that he had more to offer than is sometimes apparent in many of his roles--it's always fun to see that talent emerge. Now off to read more posts!

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  3. Nothing about Branded is ringing any bells, and I thought I'd seen them all. Top of the list time for this 1950 western. Thanks.

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    1. Oh wow! I think you will enjoy it, CW. Thanks for stopping by!

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  4. This is my favorite Alan Ladd movie, and I love all that you say about it here :-)

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  5. My first experience of Alan Ladd was watching him in Shane, so I tended to associate him with Westerns for many years, until I saw him in This Gun For Hire. Haven't seen Branded so I'm going to look for it, as your article has me intrigued. Thanks for a fantastic write-up!

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