Cimarron

Gasser

Cimarron (1931)

Cimarron (1931)

This week I will review two Best Picture winners that had they been released in another year would not have stood a chance for the Academy’s top award. First is the 1931 winner Cimarron. This western about settling the Oklahoma territory is also the saga of a family confounded by the husband’s need to roam.

At the picture’s opening we meet Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) who joins thousands of other settlers in making a run to claim portions of the Cherokee land that would become Oklahoma. He knows precisely where he wants to make his claim and nearly makes it there when a woman –Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor)– falls with her horse into a ditch. Yancey stops to help her and loses the claim to Ms. Lee.

Yancey returns home to his son and wife and her family in Wichita, where he convinces his clan to move to a boom town in the newly settled land. There the man –already well known to many in the settlement of Osage– sets up a newspaper. He also helps to establish a church by holding a service in the only building big enough to hold all the townsfolk: the gambling hall. Trouble from an outlaw band leads to a standoff at the service, but Yancey manages to shoot the leader dead before he can make a similar move.

Yancey’s wife Sabra (Irene Dunne) has a second child while living in their now very nice home attached to the newspaper office. The girl Donna joins son “Cim”, whose name is short for Cimarron, meaning wild one. It also happens to be a rarely used nickname for Yancey.

Dixie Lee takes up residence in the town, having been driven off the land she stole from Yancey. The man has no hard feelings, however, and readily accepts a friendship with the woman of ill repute, who seems to lead a horde of prostitutes. Sabra is naturally offended by any association between the two.

Yancey next leaves home to settle a new strip of government-released land from the Cherokee without much consideration to his home responsibilities. During the multiple years he is away, Sabra maintains the newspaper with the help of the loyal printing assistant. The children grow while Yancey remains away with no word of his whereabouts. He returns at last, having served in the Spanish-American War, just in time to find Sabra preparing to print a story about the conviction of Dixie Lee as a public nuisance. Being a lawyer, Yancey immediately heads to court to defend the prostitute, winning the case for her.

Next in the history of the Cravat family is Yancey’s controversial editorial supporting citizenship for American Indians who have gained wealth as a result of the oil boom. Sabra opposes the opinion piece and Yancey disappears after its issuance.

Fast forward to the newspaper’s 40th anniversary when the town of Osage is a steel city and Sabra a newly elected Congresswoman for the region. She is given a congratulatory dinner where she talks about the paper and her family, saying her husband is out of town. In truth he has been missing for decades. Later, while visiting an oil drilling site, Sabra learns a man is badly injured only to find it is her long-lost husband.

Probably the largest problem with Cimarron is the unlikeability of the main character. Yancey might be kind to the down-and-out prostitute or American Indian, but he treats his wife atrociously through his repeated abandonment of her and his children. We come to like Sabra quite a bit through Dunne’s wonderful-as-usual performance, but even her tearful reunion with her husband at the close could draw no sympathy from me because the movie did a poor job with their romance. This was no case of lovers who just can’t seem to get their timing right. This was a story of a man too restless to stay in one place regardless of his responsibility to people or business.

Cimarron might hold interest as a story of the settling of a new town and the impact of oil developments in the Oklahoma region, but it fails as a story capable of drawing any emotion.

Feature: 31 Days of Oscar

Each February I look forward to Turner Classic Movies’ 31 Days of Oscar and the opportunity it affords me in terms of completing my viewing of all Best Picture-winning movies. But TCM does not make its schedule around Best Picture winners, instead showing nominees and winners in other, sometimes obscure, categories.

I’m not opposing the channel’s approach; however, this year’s lineup provides only three of the handful of movies on my list that need checking off: The Life of Emile Zola, Cimarron, and The Deer Hunter.

I regrettably realized that as many as four of the other movies unchecked on my list are in DVD form on my shelf at home, having been long-ago purchases of my fiance’s. Perhaps this will be the year I tackle those. One can hope!

In the meantime, if you are looking for some insight into winners in the top Academy Award category, consult my list and follow the links to the variety of them that have been already reviewed here. Happy Oscar Season!

Tribute to a Bad Man

Dullsville

Tribute to a Bad Man (1956)

     James Cagney would never be my first pick to act in a western. The star who made his name playing gangsters and later returned to his native song-and-dance genre did not exude “cowboy”, at least not at this point in his career. In Tribute to a Bad Man, Cagney is 57 but still a tough guy. The title of the film is confusing at first, as we wonder who this “bad man” might be. Cagney starts off the picture seeming rather congenial, but we gradually see just how deep seated his “badness” is.

     The story is narrated by Steve Miller (Don Dubbins) who comes across a gun fight in a valley belonging to Jeremy Rodock, although the young man has not yet heard this name. Steve scares away the aggressors and attends to a man shot in the back who is this Rodock (Cagney). The two develop a simple friendship overnight on their way back to Rodock’s farm where Steve will get work.

     Rodock is a horse wrangler and has the largest and most successful enterprise for raising and selling the animal anywhere in the area. His expanses of land on which the horses graze, however, leave plenty of opportunity for theft, which Rodock strictly punishes by hanging. At home, Rodock has a young ethnic woman (probably meant to be Latina but played by Greek Irene Papas) who appears to be his mistress. Upon meeting her, Steve is immediately struck by Jocasta’s beauty –as are others who work and live on the ranch– but respects Rodock too much to do anything about it.

     Through Jocasta’s pleading that Rodock not go around killing the people who have wronged him, and Steve’s passive approach to justice, we come to understand just how bad this Rodock is. In a final display of his meanness, the man punishes the three thieves who have temporarily crippled his mares by cutting their hooves too closely by having the men walk barefoot to the nearest town. Steve at first seems pleased by the equitable punishment and Rodocks’ abstention from killing, but as the torture takes a toll on the men, he gets fed up and decides the man is cruel. Steve attempts to leave the ranch with Jocasta, but the woman cannot shake her man, not matter how brutal he is.

     Tribute to a Bad Man is tragically absent of any likeable characters. Although Steve is tolerable, he wanes on the pathetic side in strong contrast to the abject meanness Cagney brings to Rodock. The part was originally planned for Spencer Tracy, who I think would have brought some logic to his cruelty rather than acting on pure animal instinct as Cagney seems to do. The latter’s approach makes it impossible for us to believe the man can ever change to someone soft enough for the woman he loves.

     Dubbins’ performance is adequate as the looker on who relates the story of Jeremy Rodock through his own experiences. The plot is really meant to convey Steve becoming a man through the influence of Rodock and Jocasta, but one has to dig past the story’s muck to find that conclusion.

4 for Texas

Dullsville

4 for Texas (1963)

     Immediately upon it’s opening, 4 for Texas informs us that Charles Bronson‘s character is the villain and characters named Zack and Joe are the good guys, a fact that is easy to forget as we stumble through a sloppy story in which Rat Packers Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra arenotgood pals.

     Sure the two characters seem to be on great terms as the start of the movie takes us on a high-speed horse-drawn stagecoach race. Bronson’s Matson is leading a horseback gang that seeks to take both the $100,000 the coach is carrying and the man defending it, Sinatra’s Zack Thomas. With Sinatra on the roof of the coach and Martin’s Joe Jarrett inside, they fend off the attackers with some sharp shooting before the coach crashes a safe distance from the villains. The following exchange, however, sees the money and power change hands a few times between Zack and Joe, who are firmly enemies by the time the latter walks off with the cash.

     The money came from dirty Galveston banker Harvy Burden (Victor Buono) who hired Zack to protect the coach and Matson to attack it. The money was meant to be Zack’s to buy a bum river boat that he would transform into a gambling operation. The man is consoled by French girlfriend Elya, played by the ever voluptuous Anita Ekberg.

     Joe meanwhile arrives in Galveston and makes a fast friend in Angel (Nick Dennis), who deposits the stolen money from Joe’s jacket lining into Harvy’s bank, where it cannot be touched. Our two main men have back and forth arguments about the money, but Joe opts to pursue setting up the gambling boat himself, especially after meeting its owner, the less-classy seductress Maxine (Ursula Andress). When the gambling operation is ready to open, however, Joe will have to fend off Zack before both parties are forced to team up against Matson.

     4 for Texas is a silly comedy complete with cameos from the aging Three Stooges. Sinatra and Martin had the time of their lives on the set, much to the chagrin of Director Robert Aldrich. Sinatra in particular often arrived late and refused to do more than a couple takes. The lack of effort does not necessarily show in the performances, but the story and overall picture are sloppy. Sinatra comes off as the villain for a good portion of the movie while our favors side with Martin. The women do not particularly bring anything to the picture, nor do they advance the plot in any irreplaceable way. And let’s be honest, in many ways Ekberg with her mountainous bosom and Ursula with her comparable curves were probably only incorporated into the picture as eye candy and/or as a distraction for the stars.

     4 for Texas was certainly not the worst Sinatra or Martin movie I have seen, nor the worst western Sinatra did (see  The Kissing Bandit). It also has a certain amount of glamor that has its appeal, but as a story it lacks all quality. One will not be bored watching this movie, it just is likely to leave the viewer dissatisfied.

Cry Justice & Affair in Sumatra

Dullsville

     The two Screen Directors Playhouse episodes I watched this week were the first disappointing ones among those I have seen, one moreso than the other. One of the greatest compliments I have given to these half-hour TV movies are that they somehow fit a whole film plot into a short timeframe and do it without feeling rushed. That was not the case for Affair in Sumatra.

     You might have also noticed me questioning whether Ralph Bellamy is capable of playing a romantic lead. To that I got my answer: no. The older Bellamy in Affair in Sumatra is a doctor who travels to a jungle land to act as physician/surgeon and also conduct research on jungle diseases. When driving into the village where he will be stationed, the man’s Jeep splashes mud onto a native-looking woman who refuses to answer him as he tries to apologize. Not long after he re-meets this Lotti (Rita Gam) who is the owner/director of the hospital. Bellamy’s Dr. Kelog convinces the woman to invest more money into the dreadful supply and sanitation conditions of the hospital –it seems the hospital director played by Basil Rathbone has been siphoning off excess money– but does not give her enough romantic attention.

     The romance between Bellamy and Gam feels abrupt and rushed if not utterly unnatural. The woman lures him into kissing her the first time and follows up with a slap before allowing the second kiss to proceed. When their relationship hits the rocks, Bellamy’s expressionless face and eyes show how uncommitted he is to the role’s romantic requirements. Also, being half white, half Sumatran, Lotti for some reason opted to return to Sumatra to start the hospital but is utterly unhappy because the natives do not like her, which raises the question of why she remains there. Affair in Sumatra Director Byron Haskins fails to connect the audience with both the love affair and the moral obligations of the story.

     Director George Sherman‘s Cry Justice is mildly better but clearly would have been improved if offered as a full-length feature. Gil Foster (Macdonald Carey) and Jim Wheeler (Dick Haymes) are attorneys in a western town who have a brief spat at the open of the movie over Jim being jealous of his colleague. Later the sheriff (James Dunn) approaches Gil to say Jim is afraid of him because of an alleged threat on his life Gil made during their fight. The next day, Gil visits his friend’s house to find it torn apart with pools of blood evident, some of which gets on his jacket. Bringing this matter to the sheriff, Gil is eventually put to trial for Jim’s murder when officials find bones and boots burned up in the victim’s fireplace.

     Newlywed Gil goes to jail for 10 years on the circumstantial evidence and spends that time petitioning the Supreme Court to rule on whether the “double jeopardy” constitutional amendment applies to all crimes. Gil suspects that Jim faked his death, so after his release from prison, the convict goes looking for the man who wronged him, eventually finding him.

     Cry Justice was not bad but could have been better if more time was put into the plot and if it were not so obvious that the victim was still alive. The portion pertaining to the young fiancée, played by June Vincent, who loses her husband first to prison then to the man hunt could also have been finessed to heighten the emotional pull of the story.

Arroyo & Want Ad Wedding

Ring a Ding Ding

     Turner Classic Movies last week disbursed a number of Screen Directors Playhouse half-hour TV movies throughout its schedule, giving us another host of fun quickies featuring great actors and directors. For Arroyo, Director George Waggner wrote a story that frankly could have been drawn out into a full-length movie. A fat Jack Carson is a self-appointed judge for a western town who metes out justice as two troublemakers enter town.

    A wagon train had been attacked by American Indians and one woman survivor shows up in Arroyo. She is injured and put to bed. Meanwhile, “the Dude” (John Baer) has gotten into an argument with a stranger, Bart (Neville Brand). This Bart was hired by the wagon train to lead it through the Indian country but did not keep his promise. The injured woman (Lola Albright) says she saw her husband killed during the attack, but Bart says the man rode away the night before.

     Carson is his usual tough self as a possibly crooked arm of the law and does a great job playing it cool as we all know western men are apt to do. Baer gives an appropriately emotional performance as Brand provides the plot with its sinister aspect. I have mentioned before that Screen Directors Playhouse episodes never feel rushed but magically seem to squeeze an entire movie in a half hour spot. That rings true here with a story that has its mystery and twists and flash ending. The story is certainly of the quality that could make it a big-screen hit, but audiences in 1955 got to watch it from their own homes instead.

     Next up is Want Ad Wedding, a cute romantic comedy directed by William Seiter. Polly Parker (Sally Forrest) is a “floater” at a department store, a job that involves her moving from department to department doing whatever tasks are needed. When she ends up in advertising, she gets sucked into a scheme dreamt up by her father Col. Jennings Parker (Leon Ames). He has spotted an ad in the paper asking for guests to attend the wedding of two military officers who are strangers in the big city. The colonel proposes to the advertising boss Chet Buchanan (Fred Clark) that the department store sponsor the wedding and provide all aspects of the decoration and clothing.

     In Polly’s efforts to pull of this last-minute wedding with her co-workers, she makes jealous a man who has been after her for a date for some time: clothing salesman Hank Douglas (Richard Webb). Although we only have a half hour to establish this romance, throw some hurdles in front of it, and bring it to a happy ending, Want Ad Wedding does so successfully. I think the actors make it possible through their sympathetic performances that convey their emotions toward one another. Webb is particularly essential in this task as we watch him long for Polly.

Johnny Guitar

Gasser

Johnny Guitar (1954)

     I have been relishing the opportunity to watch Johnny Guitar because I have been convinced it would be horrendous. You might then understand my utter amazement at how good the movie is. Outside of Joan Crawford who is the only downfall of the flick –and a big one at that– Johnny Guitar is a great story that takes an untraditional approach to the western genre.

     Westerns generally depict the feuds between men, but Johnny Guitar‘s main focus is on two fighting women. Crawford is saloon owner Vienna who has become generally associated with the gang of the Dancin’ Kid. Mercedes McCambridge as Emma, on the other hand, aligns herself with a rival posse of ranch hands that includes the sheriff and a U.S. Marshall. At the opening, Emma’s brother is killed in a stagecoach robbery and that group of ranchers blame the Dancin’ Kid’s quartet. They go to Vienna’s saloon to search them out but do not find the supposed culprits there, at least not at first. When the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) does show up, he denies involvement with the robbery and shooting. Emma has a particular hatred for this man, but Vienna maintains it is because she wants him but in a star-crossed lover sort of way cannot have him. The Kid, might want Emma as well, but he’s also pushing to get in Vienna’s bed. In light of the feud and shooting, the sheriff declares a law that would prevent Vienna from offering booze or gambling at her establishment and calls for the Kid’s gang to get out of town –all within 24 hours.

     Throughout this, a new man in town, Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) has arrived at Vienna’s request for a job playing music at the saloon. He gets on the bad side of the Dancin’ Kid gang and beats up Bart, played by Ernest Borgnine, and shoots a gun out of young Turkey’s hand (Ben Cooper). We eventually learn that this Johnny Guitar –or Johnny Logan– was Vienna’s past love, but the woman’s seedy bedroom forays in the past five years stand in the way of a reunion.

     Because the Kid’s gang is being run out of town, the group decides to actually commit a crime on its way out. Just as Vienna is withdrawing her money from the bank now owned by Emma, the men barge in and rob it of all its gold. The authorities naturally associate Vienna with the crime and Emma is out for blood. Before Vienna and Johnny can skip town, however, they are faced with a wounded Turkey, whom they must hide in the saloon as Emma and the ranchers barge in. All is well until Turkey’s hiding place is discovered and the law and Emma force him to say Vienna helped in the robbery or else be hanged. He does so but the posse now rushes off to hang them both. A chase and shootout compose the remainder of the plot.

     McCambridge was truly stunning in her brutal portrayal of a frontier woman with masculine strengths. Often the camera takes a close-up on her homely face as she seethes with rage in either yelling at or campaigning against her nemesis in Vienna. McCambridge and Crawford hated each other off screen making their onscreen feud all the stronger, but Crawford’s approach is more cool and aloof and does not stack up against her rival. Besides having left her beauty behind her by this point in her career, Crawford is absolutely out of place in a western. Her clothing, face and hair are absolutely spotless throughout the movie as though the woman never ventures outside into the dirty, dry world of the western U.S. The gun belt she wears looks more like a fashion accessory than a weapon holster, and she holds a gun more like Mildred Pierce than a gunslinger. For one portion of the flick, Vienna dons a purely white dress that somehow never dirties despite being hauled on a horse to her hanging, hiding against the earth and strolling through a mine. Even after getting wet while wading through a river and passing through a waterfall, moments later she is dry, her hair pristine and the man’s clothes she’s borrowed perfectly clean and well-fitting. It takes no stretch of the imagination that Crawford likely required these perfections for her role. She certainly required all close ups be filmed in a studio rather than on location so that the lighting could be controlled to her advantage.

     Besides Crawford sorely standing out as the wrong person for the role, I greatly enjoyed the story of Johnny Guitar even if it has less to do with the titular character than the women who consume the story. It is a great twist on the classic western and draws many great performances.

Source: TCM.com

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