I’ve been enjoying contributing to a few blogathons lately, and this is my contribution to another one – the Universal Blogathon, celebrating the studio’s 100th birthday. Please take a look at the great range of postings.
Universal might be best known for its horror films, but the studio also produced many other types of movie over the years, including Westerns. The Alaskan gold rush is the backdrop for The Spoilers, a lighthearted film with a great cast, headed by Marlene Dietrich, John Wayne and Randolph Scott. I’d remembered all the best bits of this film from a previous viewing, before deciding to revisit it for the blogathon, and, having watched it again, would have to admit there are quite a few flaws which had slipped my mind. So it isn’t a masterpiece – but it does provide a lot of fun and there is loads of chemistry between Dietrich and Wayne, who were an item in real life at this time. It’s also interesting to see Western hero Scott in a less than sympathetic role.
This is my contribution to the 1947 Blogathon being organised by Shadows and Satin and Speakeasy. Please take a look at the great range of postings.
A rider gallops through the Western countryside – but falls from his horse, hit by a bullet. He is seen by a pair of passing Quakers, who go to his aid, but he is reluctant to accept their help, wanting to press on with his quest even if it kills him. That’s the starting point for Angel and the Badman, an unusually romantic Western starring John Wayne and Gail Russell as a couple who come from completely different worlds.
Director James Edward Grant also wrote the script, so this was clearly a film which meant a lot to him. It has an atmosphere all of its own, almost taking place at two speeds, with some fast-moving Western segments, such as a bar-room brawl, and some slower and more gently unfolding scenes in the world of the Quakers’ farmhouse.
I’ve been watching a few 1950s Westerns lately, and enjoyed this gorgeously-filmed Technicolor offering from the start of the decade, starring Gary Cooper. It’s one of his lesser films, and rather uneven, with some unbelievable plot twists, but still a good role for him. Cooper plays a haunted man – a former Confederate officer, Blayde “Reb” Hollister, who has lost everything in the war. For Reb, the conflict is still going on, as he turns outlaw and has a price on his head. Ruth Roman stars opposite Cooper, with Leif Erickson, Raymond Massey and Steve Cochran also featuring in a fine cast.
Cooper was pushing 50 when he made this, and his leading-man looks are noticeably fading. But his weary, melancholy features make his role as a lonely outsider all the more poignant. His character is someone who has been left behind, and is trying to make his way in a world which has moved on without him. This reminded me of Bogart’s character in a film director Stuart Heisler made the previous year, Tokyo Joe, who is also emotionally stranded after a war, though in his case it is the Second World War. (Both films also have a strong focus on love triangles, as does Blue Skies, the only other Heisler film I’ve seen, which, as a Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire musical, is otherwise worlds away from this one, )
I’ll admit I was expecting an awful lot from The Robin Hood of El Dorado – yet another 1930s William A Wellman film (this one made for MGM rather than Warner or RKO) which isn’t as yet officially available on DVD. I knew that it was a socially-conscious Western which had a high reputation, and also that it starred Warner Baxter. He is an actor I admire though sadly many of his films seem to have disappeared (especially the silent ones, like the very first adaptation of The Great Gatsby) or are very hard to track down. This Western is also the first movie where Wellman was credited as scriptwriter as well as director – coming just a year before he won the Oscar for writing A Star Is Born.
So one way and another my hopes were high, but on first viewing I’ll admit I was a bit disappointed. I was impressed by the film’s powerful indictment of racism and prejudice, but felt as if the drama falls off in the middle after a powerful start. And I was also slightly taken aback to see Baxter playing a Mexican bandit, Joaquin Murrieta, complete with a heavy fake Spanish accent rather than his own expressive voice. There are many scenes where the Mexican characters speak among themselves in accented English, which I find hard to take at times – though there isn’t much option in a film where some of the actors, like Mexican actress Margo as Murrieta’s young bride Rosita, really are from Latin America and others aren’t.
I’m still hot on the trail of William A Wellman’s pre-Code movies, and have been lucky enough to get hold of another couple – starting off with this Western epic. This wasn’t on DVD when I wrote this posting but I’m just editing to say that it is now out on Warner Archive. I don’t think this is one of Wellman’s very best, but I do like it and wish it was more widely-known – and it is definitely a Depression movie, despite largely being set in earlier eras. The film covers everything from the coming of the railways to the early days of silent cinema, and even has a prediction of what is to come for the future near the end, where a character says: “We will have television – and we’ll be able to fly across the whole continent in a couple of hours!” It also includes quite a lot of autobiographical material, with a character who joins the Lafayette Escadrille and becomes a celebrated First World War pilot, just as Wellman himself did.
Ann Harding and Richard Dix star as a young couple who travel out to Nebraska and build a banking dynasty. Both stars have demanding roles, taking them from youth to old age, and Dix even plays his character’s own grandson for good measure! I like Dix in this (for me he is more convincing as a young banker than as a swashbuckling Australian outlaw in Wellman’s Stingaree) but find Harding a bit insipid compared to other heroines in Wellman pre-Codes, such as Barbara Stanwyck or Ruth Chatterton.
This is my second – last-minute! – contribution to the Robert Wise blog-athon, being hosted at the Octopus Cinema website. I’ve just re-watched this Western starring my favourite actor, James Cagney, which is the tale of a tough, driven owner of a horse ranch in Wyoming, and wanted to write down a few thoughts about it.
James Cagney with the horses
This is a lavishly-produced film, in Cinemascope and Technicolor, with beautifully colourful, wide shots of the rolling grass prairies that almost take your breath away. The dazzling scenery does become disconcerting at times in the movie, as sometimes violent and disturbing events unfold against a backdrop almost as lovely as the Alps in Wise’s The Sound of Music (of course, bad things are happening inside the houses there too.) I suppose the contrast between the scenery and the events must be part of the point, but I’m not sure it always works all that well – sometimes I found myself wishing the lighting would be just a little less bright.
In the opening scene, young stranger Steve Miller (Don Dubbins) wanders into Jeremy Rodock’s valley, and almost immediately meets ranch owner Rodock (Cagney) himself, who is shot in a gunfight with horse thieves. Despite his wound, Rodock is determined to avenge himself on the thieves and insists on continuing to ride his horse until he faints in the saddle. He then insists that Steve must cut the bullet out of his back to save his life. There’s a moment of dark comedy afterwards when Rodock – the one who has just undergone the operation without anaesthetic! – asks a half-fainting Steve: “How do you feel?”
Cagney and Bogart leave the mean streets of New York far behind them in this mainly lighthearted Western – which I’d say is a must for fans of either or both. Cagney seems to enjoy himself as a mixed-up outlaw, who turns out to be a hero almost by mistake.
Unfortunately, Bogart doesn’t have such a good role to get his teeth into. This was made only a year after Angels With Dirty Faces and he is really playing the same type of sour-faced bad guy he played there, obsessed with money and killing to get it – or, rather, getting other people to do the killing for him. The only good thing about his character is that he has a truly great name, Whip McCord!
As in Angels, Cagney really seems too nice to be a criminal, and is mainly seen acting as a vigilante rather than a thief.