Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge: Young Man With A Horn

SummerReadingDorothy Baker’s debut novel, Young Man With A Horn, opens with a dedication that functions as both a clarifying note and a sort of hint to the type of story that will be told. It reads, ” The inspiration for the writing of this book has been the music, but not the life, of a great musician, Leon (Bix) Beiderbecke…” Published in 1938, the book arrived seven years after the passing of the great cornet player. Beiderbecke’s era was gone as well, as traditional 1920’s jazz had shifted into big band swing. Yet Baker’s novel is firmly rooted in the music and feeling of the 1920s, and she manages to capture an authenticity of the jazz scene that I have rarely felt when reading or watching a film.

The story follows Rick Martin, trumpet player, from his childhood as a school-ducking kid growing up in lower-class Los Angeles. He first learns to play piano, then saves money from his bowling alley job to by a trumpet. Through his friend Smoke Jordan, Rick is introduced to black jazz musicians Art Hazard and Jeff Williams, and begins learning his craft and sitting in with the band. It’s obvious from the beginning that Rick has talent, and trumpet playing becomes his singular obsession.

As a young adult, Rick begins to move up the ranks of the white dance bands first in ballrooms in LA and then on to the big groups in New York. Having grown up playing more hot jazz Rick finds the watered-down dance band music not to his liking and often tries to rebel with his own style of playing. While playing with a Paul Whiteman-type orchestra in NYC as the lead trumpet, Rick visits other clubs after he gets off work to jam with Jeff Williams’ group. It’s though these late night sessions that he first meets Amy North, a beautiful yet distant college student. Rick becomes smitten with Amy, and the two end up in a rocky marriage. Amy is somewhat envious of Rick’s status as a top musician, as she claims she is still looking for the one thing is life that she can do well. But in many ways Rick isn’t satisfied with sitting on his talent and continues to strive for perfection while often drinking to compensate for what’s missing in his life and marriage. In the end, it seems that the only people who know Rick best are his fellow musicians. Through what is hinted at being caused by alcoholism, Rick dies from pneumonia with Smoke at his side.

Through dropping hints at song titles and other references, Baker sets her era well. As Gary Giddins mentions in the afterword of the New York Review Books edition, race plays a large factor in the story, and Baker’s African-American characters are given a chance to speak without racially stereotyped dialogue and appear as fully formed characters. That’s not to say the book, which is narrated by a mystery third person narrator, totally refrains from the use of derogatory racial labels and descriptions (it doesn’t), but there is something progressive about its main characters that was carried over in the 1950’s film adaptation.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. As Baker has dedicated her book to the spirit of good music, she seems to have a feeling for that world. Having sat in on late night jam sessions, it’s easy to catch on to the comradery, high level of skill and musicianship and joy that comes out of playing with and being challenged by fellow musicians. I think that’s what I took most out of Young Man With A Horn, that idea that while it’s a tragic story, music in Rick Martin’s life was something to continue to work towards and aspire to, and that it’s a universal language.

This post is part of my summer reading list for Out of the Past’s Summer Reading Challenge.

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Milland Directs Milland: Hostile Witness (1968)

hostile_witnessPerhaps one of the stranger fates to befall a popular leading man of the 1930s and 40s was the late career trajectory of Ray Milland. Stranger still was the fact that he was an Oscar winner, having been awarded the Best Actor statue for Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945). If not best known for his portrayal of alcoholic writer Don Birnam in present day references, Milland is often recognized for his late career work Love Story (1970) or in such B-films like The Thing with Two Heads (1972)and Frogs (1972). One of Paramount’s most profitable contract players during the studio era, Milland was best known before The Lost Weekend as a handsome and suave leading man in romantic comedies and lighter dramas.

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As a romantic leading man, 1936.

Yet post-Lost Weekend Milland was rarely offered roles that allowed him to push further into the serious dramatic material that he had successfully ventured into with that film. There are exceptions, namely The Big Clock (1948)and Alias Nick Beal (1949) for John Farrow, and Lewis Allen’s So Evil My Love (1948), noirs which allowed Milland to portray more complicated, sinister characters. Milland’s own Welsh upbringing and time in the British Household Calvary gave him an air of British sophistication, something that played well into his casting as debonair gentlemen in the 1930s and 40s and gave an edge of upper-class smarminess to his later roles. Milland’s post-Lost Weekend career can be looked at as an odd and somewhat sad downturn for a once prolific actor, but conversely can be explored through the more varied roles and hats Milland was allowed to wear once his Paramount contract expired.

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Middle-aged, The Lost Weekend

In the 1950s, Milland’s filmography is filled with mostly forgettable comedies and melodramas, with a few westerns thrown in. Like many other older Hollywood stars, he ventured into television as well, and eventually found himself starring in low-budget science fiction/horror films for Roger Corman at American International Pictures. It was during this time period, free from his nearly 20 years at Paramount, that Milland finally got to try his hand at directing, something he had long wanted to do. In total, Milland directed five films, all lower-budget, for smaller companies like Republic or AIP. As a stipulation, Milland had to juggle a lead acting part and often producing and writing duties in order to be allowed to helm these pictures.

Hostile Witness is the last of the five films that Milland directed. Adapted from a play by Jack Roffey by its own playwright, Milland had already played the lead role during its Broadway run in 1966. Taking place in 1960s London, Milland plays successful barrister Simon Crawford. The experienced lawyer has a knack for getting seemingly guilty clients off the hook, and runs his own chambers with an iron fist. Crawford is widowed with an adult daughter, Joanna (Sandra Fehr), and while somewhat an intimidating personality,  is well-liked by his colleagues.

On a visit home, Joanna is struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver near Crawford’s flat. Crawford is distraught, and when police and private investigators fail to identify the driver, he vows to kill the man responsible for the accident if he ever finds him.

ray-milland-melville-cooper-michael-allinson-hostile-witness-april-1966-playbill_2320d93710ded9293c3a768492445186Returning to his flat one night, Crawford is struck on the head and left unconscious. He is found and brought in by his friend, Major Hugh Maitland (Geoffrey Lumsden). The next morning, Crawford’s neighbor and friend, high court justice Matthew Gregory, is found stabbed to death inside his apartment. Upon questioning Crawford, the investigator finds a letter from one of Crawford’s private investigators identifying Gregory as the man who hit Joanna. With Maitland as his only alibi, coupled with Crawford’s previous threat to kill the man responsible and other physical evidence, Crawford is arrested as the chief murder suspect.

Insisting that he has been framed for a murder he didn’t commit, Crawford has young Sheila Larkin (Sylvia Syms), his up-and-coming assistant, represent him in the trial. The odds seem squarely against Crawford, whose case hinges on the testimony of the eccentric Maitland. Pegged as a hostile witness for the prosecution, Crawford takes his own chances with Maitland as the latter’s unstable recollections of the night of the murder could put Crawford’s alibi in doubt.

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Milland and Syms in Hostile Witness

As an example of courtroom drama, Hostile Witness presents a gripping case which is engaging enough to warrant sitting through its nearly two hour running time. Even in his older age  Milland is still a master actor, conveying much subtly through his face and body movements in a setting that does not allow for grand gestures. It is also his aloof quality that makes one wonder if Crawford is telling the truth or really was capable of murder. As a cinematic product, however, the film leans heavily on its stage roots and becomes almost too static and one-dimensional. Hostile Witness suffers from this in that it often feels more like an older television series in its bright, uniform lighting and medium shots. In fact, towards the end of the film, this is highlighted through the almost comic use of shot-reverse-shot between Crawford’s accusations towards a witness and the latter’s repeated response of “No!” Having seen three of the Milland-directed films I would say although he exhibits little discernible visual style, he does seem to understand the basics of the language well, and his films are clean and clear examples of the dominant continuity style. Part of this may be with the quality of the narrative material itself, as I find Milland’s A Man Alone (1955) and Panic in Year Zero! (1962) much stronger and compelling examples of both visual and narrative story telling than Hostile Witness. Yet although Hostile Witness stumbles slightly over these points and its convoluted ending, the film offers fine performances by most of its cast and is worth a look as a more intimate character study-driven whodunit.

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Last Remaining Seats: Footlight Parade (1933)

 

Downtown Los Angeles, like many cities, presents a sort of odd juxtaposition of the old and new urban setting. Walking down S. Broadway, dubbed “Theater Row,” one can still see the old marquees of the grand movie palaces, vaudeville houses and nickelodeons of the early decades of the 1900s mixed in with the newer shops and restaurants. Movie-going in the early years was meant to be an event worth going out on the town for, and the lavish palaces that were built during the 1920s and early 30s reflected that. However, the move to the suburbs post-WWII and the rise of the multiplex relegated these downtown movie houses obsolete. Many are gone now, while others remain in various states of use. While some hint at their magnificent interiors by the art deco architecture outside, most blend in with the rest of the street. Some are still used for live concerts and theater, while others remain vacant or have been converted into large shopping venues or churches.

The LA Conservancy opens up several of these grand venues for movie screenings during its annual Last Remaining Seats series in June. I was able to head down on Wednesday night for a screening of Footlight Parade at the Orpheum Theater. Opened in 1926, the theater was built as part of the Orpheum vaudeville circuit in Los Angeles. The interior is decorated in a French Renaissance theme, featuring white marble and gold leaf details throughout, as well as some impressive woodwork and chandeliers in the foyer and theater itself. The theater also boasts the last Mighty Wurlitzer organ on Broadway, which was played by Robert Salisbury for the night’s pre-show entertainment.

The evening opened with a special floorshow featuring Maxwell DeMille and Dean Mora and his Orchestra playing songs from Harry Warren and Al Dubin, who penned some of the songs in Footlight Parade and many others for Warner Brothers. It was a fun surprise to see Geoff Nudell, an awesome reeds player who is in the LA Winds with me, playing in the orchestra. The pre-show also included a stage presentation of several classic film costume gowns from designers like Irene and Edith Head from Greg Schreiner’s Hollywood Revisited show. While all gorgeous, one that stood out in my mind was the super sparkly mink backed gown that Ginger Rogers wore in Lady in the Dark.

If there was one slight bummer to this experience, it was the print of the film itself, which had several jumps and red marks. Having seen the film several times, it wasn’t really that big of a deal to me, and the times the print was clear, it was a treat to see this in 35mm. While not a full sell-out, the house was mostly packed, and it was an enthusiastic audience. There were plenty of laughs for Joan Blondell’s pre-Code wisecracks and lots of applause.

I love Footlight Parade, even while it presents some pretty problematic material, mostly with the “Shanghai Lil” number. That being said, I think the “By a Waterfall” sequence may be the most impressive Busby Berkeley number I’ve seen, and to watch James Cagney dance is one of my favorite things in the world. I was also able to briefly meet Meredith, who was visiting LA with her family.  We have known each other for a few years on twitter, so it was just another lovely opportunity to finally meet another classic film friend in person.

Last Remaining Seats was something I hadn’t even heard about until this year, but will definitely circle on my calendar for the future. There are still tickets remaining for the last two screenings next week: Luis Buenel’s El gran calavera, and two screenings of Citizen Kane. Information can be found here. The LA Conservancy also offers walking tours throughout the year of the downtown area which also offers an opportunity to see inside some of these old theaters and buildings. Overall, it’s a great event that offers the chance to see a classic film in a historic venue.

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Summer Reading Challenge!

SummerReadingAs some of you may remember, I failed miserably at Raquel‘s Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge last year. So here’s my list for attempt number two. If you’d like to join in the fun, details are here at Out of the Past.

My list for this summer:

Young Man with a Horn by Dorothy Baker- I’m kind of a Bix Beiderbecke nut, and although this fictional novel is not a biography, Baker dedicated her book to the spirit of the legendary cornetist. The book was adapted into a film starring Kirk Douglas, who was dubbed by Harry James, which brings us to…

Trumpet Blues- by Peter J. Levinson- This is one I’ve picked through for research, but need to read cover to cover. A biography of trumpet player and bandleader Harry James, who was married to Betty Grable and had a significant film career of his own.

The Crime Films of Anthony Mann by Max Alvarez – Having just recently seen a good chunk of the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s retrospective on Mann, I’m looking forward to reading more about Mann’s noir and western films of the 40s and 50s.

The Hollywood Musical by Jane Feuer and/or Film/Genre by Rick Altman – doing a little bit of genre studies reading for research and background.

Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews by Carl Rollyson- I love Dana Andrews, and a good biography has been a long time coming. I’m looking forward to finally reading this one, it’s been calling from my shelf for a while.

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett- I’ve read some Chandler and some Cain, time to see what Hammett offers.

Other books on my shelf:

Unsinkable by Debbie Reynolds

The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand- not a classic film book, but I swear I’m reading it this summer.

 

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TCMFF: Day Four Recap

shareSunday for TCMFF seems to be a lighter day than Friday and Saturday, depending on what you might’ve seen earlier in the weekend. The festival holds open one theater’s block of programming as TBAs on Sunday, and they are repeat screenings of films that were popular and sold out the first time around. These are usually announced by Saturday. I found out that they were screening Employees’ Entrance again, which I had been sold out of on Friday night, and The Great Gatsby, which was a film I really wanted to see but it was opposite Maureen O’Hara and How Green Was My Valley.

I started my day off with a really fun screening of The Adventures of Robin Hood at the Egyptian. In this “Academy Conversations” with two Oscar winners, sound effects master and editor Ben Burtt (Star Wars, WALL-E) and visual effects supervisor Craig Barron (Titanic, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) gave a multimedia presentation demonstrating the visual and sound effects of The Adventures of Robin Hood. This ranged from looking at how matte paintings were used to fill in landscape and sets, to the kinds of cuts on the arrow feathers that produced such a distinct sound effect while in flight. Burtt and Barron also presented behind-the-scenes production photos and more recent shots of the locations used for the film. The movie itself was a delight and played to a packed house. Beautiful technicolor and dashing Errol Flynn in all his swashbuckling, green tights glory.

From there I went to the first of my two second chance screenings, Employees’ Entrance. A 1933 pre-code directed by Roy Del Ruth, the film stars Warren William as Kurt Anderson, a totally despicable department store manager who hires a fresh-faced Madeline Walters (Loretta Young) as a clothing model. Anderson looks to solicit new sales ideas from his staff, and is impressed by a pitch by Martin West (Wallace Ford). Anderson promotes West as his new protege, while callously firing the longtime clothing department head, who then commits suicide. West and Walters fall in love and get married, but must keep it a secret because Anderson warns West that marriage is a distraction. Anderson soon finds out they are married, and tries to seduce West with another woman. When that fails, he sets it up so that West will overhear his wife and Anderson talking about the times they slept together, once before she was married, and once recently. At just 75 minutes in running time, the film resolves all of this with last minute corporate management votes and firing of guns. Employees’ Entrance has its light moments, but it wasn’t a laugh out loud kind of comedy. William elicits plenty of cringe-worthy moments as Anderson, and the movie really is about his character’s awful morals and behavior. After hearing that his old department head committed suicide by jumping out a window, Anderson states, “Well, some people outlast their usefulness,” which got quite the love-to-hate reaction from the audience. Before the screening, New York Film Forum’s Bruce Goldstein gave his “Pre-Code 101,” presentation, which outlined the characteristics of these distinct films made before the Hollywood Production Code went fully into effect in 1934.

My last film of the festival was a special one, Paramount’s 1949 version of The Great Gatsby starring Alan Ladd. The film was introduced by Ladd’s son, actor and producer David Ladd. David, who resembles his father, especially in his smile, said the role of Jay Gatsby seemed to fit his father’s own personality well. David also mentioned that this rarely seen film was one he was very proud of in his father’s legacy. The film was directed by Elliott Nugent, who was mostly known at Paramount for directing more romantic comedies and other lighter fare. Alan Ladd, whose own personal history followed a rise from humble origins to fame, fits Gatsby well. I’ve always admired Ladd for being able to communicate a lot with a look or facial expression, and his quietness works perfectly with Gatsby’s unrequited yearning. The rest of the film’s casting is great as well, with the exception of Daisy (Betty Field). To be fair, Field isn’t by any means a bad actress, but her portrayal leans more towards a more standard young ingenue and not the complex figure that is Daisy Buchanan. A special shout-out to Shelley Winters as Myrtle, who one of my friends dubbed “the go-to-dead-character-actress.” The film was screened on a great 35mm print, and it’s really a shame that it’s so difficult to see because for the most part, it’s a very faithful-feeling adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel.

After Gatsby, a group of us headed over to the Roosevelt for the closing night party at Club TCM. I actually did not spend any time at Club TCM this year, so I barely got to see the wonderfully decorated interiors. There were several items of memorabilia, like Sam’s piano and the letters of transit from Casablanca, one of Dorothy’s dresses from The Wizard of Oz, and several set and costume sketches and art from Gone with the Wind. Also on the wall were the originals of the art that was commissioned from names like Kim Novak, Jane Seymour and Jules Feiffer to celebrate TCM’s 20th Anniversary. The art was available on a set of printed cards which were offered in the the gift shop, with the proceeds going to support The Film Foundation. As each film let out, the room filled up with festival goers socializing and taking the last opportunity to say goodbye before we all departed for home. There were plenty of photos, hugs and a special toast to TCM. The last night is always sad because it feels like the weekend went by in a whirlwind, and you become used to the company of good friends. At the afterparty, it feels a little bit like Cinderella’s coach turning back into a pumpkin, but you leave having reconnected with old friends, made new ones, and looking forward to next year’s classic film family reunion.

I have to say, I had a wonderful experience my second year at TCMFF. I’ve found that even if you’re a film watching die-hard, the programming offers enough rarities to satisfy those who have access to a lot of film screenings on a regular basis. TCM also offers plenty of new restorations of the staples so that those getting to see a classic film on the big screen for the first time or those seeing it for the 20th time are getting a great experience. I personally would love to see some more foreign selections, but I understood when Charlie Tabesh brought up the difficulty of finding good prints. But I do think TCM has done an admirable job with working in documentary films, some foreign films and expanding the timeline up through more contemporary eras. The opportunity to have a wide variety of on-screen and behind the scenes talent, historians and programmers introducing these films is also a treat. TCMFF has become a can’t miss date on my calendar, and I can’t wait to see what they have in store for next year. I want to again thank TCM for the opportunity to cover the festival. Here’s to TCM for a wonderful 5th annual festival, their 20th anniversary, and for throwing the best party in town.

 

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TCMFF Recap: Day 3

shareDay three of the TCMFF again started for me at 8:30 when I got in line for King Vidor’s Stella Dallas. I jokingly coined this year’s festival as the “TCM-mess-with-my-emotions festival” because of the all the tearjerker films I saw. There wasn’t a dry eye in Chinese Theater 1 by the end of Stella Dallas either. Being a perfect fit for the family in the movies theme of the festival, Stella Dallas follows Barbara Stanwyck’s title character as she rises and falls from a modest background to being the wife of a young executive. Even through her marital troubles, mostly brought on by her own poor choices, Stella’s light in life is her daughter, Laurel, and the film focuses on Stella’s own sacrifices for her daughter. While Stella’s own choices are sometimes infuriating, Stanwyck manages to make you sympathetic to a character who could easily become an unlikable caricature.

I then went to see the new restoration of Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. It was absolutely gorgeous, and I must say Gary Cooper is in his prime here. As part of Capra’s cycle of films looking at the common man, Mr. Deeds follows Cooper’s Longfellow Deeds, a simple poet for greeting card companies who suddenly inherits a great fortune from a deceased relative. All at once he’s plucked from small-town America and sent to the big city, where his lawyers are out to get power of attorney over the fortune. He’s also chased by an ace newspaper reporter, “Babe” Bennett (Jean Arthur), who is out to get the scoop on the country bumpkin’s odd antics. Posing as a damsel in distress to get closer to Deeds, Bennett ends up falling for him, which puts her in hot water once it’s revealed that she was leading the establishment in charge of making fun of him. I’ve perhaps overlooked Mr. Deeds Goes to Town in favor of Meet John Doe and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but seeing it again has made me appreciate it a lot more. Cooper and Arthur are really wonderful together, and even as big of a movie idol as Coop was, there was always a down-home kind of charm about him, which is very evident here.

Giant line for How Green Was My Valley

Giant line for How Green Was My Valley

From there, Laura and I ran out of the theater to go across the street to the El Capitan  for How Green Was My Valley. With star Maureen O’Hara in attendance, the line quickly wrapped around the building. The renovation of the Chinese Theater IMAX this past year made the El Capitan the largest capacity theater venue at the TCMFF, with close to 1,000 seats, and we were right in the mid 100s when we jumped into line, so there was some relief that we’d get in.

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Rob Richards plays the El Capitan organ before Maureen O’Hara’s appearance for How Green Was My Valley.

The El Capitan is a beautiful venue, and they did have the regular house organist, Rob Richards, playing songs from different classic films beforehand. Robert Osborne introduced a video tribute to O’Hara, followed by him inviting her onstage. O’Hara was greeted with thunderous applause and a standing ovation, which she seemed to really appreciate. Osborne began by asking her a question: “Tell us about working with John Ford.” O’Hara replied with, “I thought we were here to talk about me!” to the crowd’s delight. At age 93, she’s still strikingly beautiful, sharp as a tack and speaks with a light touch of Irish brogue. O’Hara spoke directly to the audience, wishing us all a long life and talking about life and living. Though not a question and answer interview, it was so wonderful to be able to see a living legend and just participate in the outpouring of admiration for the actress.

IMG_3630How Green Was My Valley now has the title of being the film that beat Citizen Kane for the Best Picture Oscar in 1941, but it’s a great film in its own right. I had never seen How Green Was My Valley, and was stuck by how beautiful and emotional a film it is. This was another new restoration by 20th Century Fox, and I felt very lucky to have my first viewing of it this way. The film follows a young Huw (Roddy McDowell) growing up in a colliery town in Wales with his older brothers and sister. Maureen O’Hara plays Angharad, the only daughter in the family, who falls in love with the town preacher, Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon). Theirs is an unrequited love, as she marries the mine owner’s son and moves away to South Africa. The film follows the hardships of the men working in the mines and the changing of the times in the valley. But it really is a portrait of family and small-town life, and its told beautifully through the skills of John Ford. Robert Osborne pointed out that the plans for the film had originally been to adapt the entire novel by Richard Llewellyn, but it was decided that that would be too lengthy. The end result, a film told in flashback through the eyes of young Huw, gives the film a lot of weight with not only it being a coming of age story, but an illustration on the loss of innocence.

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Maureen O’Hara chats with Robert Osborne.

My next film was the fast paced pre-Code Hat Check Girl, starring Sally Eilers and Ginger Rogers. The two play virtual opposites, with Eilers as a the good girl and Rogers as the one who sells bootleg liquor on the side. The film is a murder mystery filled with romance and blackmail, which all gets resolved in its neat 64 minute running time. The film was a world premier restoration on 35mm from MoMA, and it was a treat to see a film that for a long time had not been seen.

I ended up skipping the following block because I wanted to see Freaks at midnight. Well, about fifteen minutes into Tod Browning’s classic, I knew I was in trouble. So Freaks joined Island of Lost Souls as midnight TCMFF films that I have slept through the majority of their running time.

But on Sunday I was able to catch three really fun films, including one that might’ve been my favorite of the festival, so more to come!

 

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Jimmy Stewart Blogathon: The Naked Spur (Mann, 1953)

MV5BMTQzNTI3MzY0NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDg0MDgyMTE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_This post is part of the James Stewart Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film & TV Cafe. You can view the complete blogathon schedule here. Thanks so much for hosting!

My home state of Colorado has played host to many major film productions, mostly in the western genre. While California may have been the idea place for the studios to set up shop with the easy access to the ocean, mountains and everything in-between, there’s something about the true American West that adds a rugged edge to the struggle of the individual that is so often played out in the western.

Director Anthony Mann was known for both his crime pictures and his westerns, especially the five he made with Jimmy Stewart. While it is very hard to judge all of them against each other, I have often cited The Naked Spur as not only my favorite Stewart/Mann western, but one of my favorite Stewart performances.

Jimmy Stewart had made his mark in the late 1930s playing the boy-next-door, earnest American everyman in movies like Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and You Can’t Take It With You and Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner to name just a few. But after Stewart returned from WWII, where he served as a decorated bomber pilot, the movie-going public’s tastes had changed and Stewart, who wasn’t sure he wanted to continue acting, had to adapt.

What emerged was a darker personality. Starting with Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life and moving into his work with Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann in the 1950s, Stewart began to display a more paranoid and morally ambiguous side to his characters. This would come full-circle with the Mann westerns, where Mann’s noir influences would show through in the actions of Stewart’s anti-hero protagonists.

The Naked Spur was the third western Mann and Stewart made together, following Winchester ’73 and Bend of the River. The plot is actually relatively simple. Stewart plays Howard Kemp, a man whose background we don’t know until later in the movie. The film opens with Kemp chasing after Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan), who is wanted for murder in Kansas. As he is riding on Vandergroat’s trail, Kemp happens upon failed prospector Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell), who thinks Kemp is a lawman. Tate agrees to help Kemp in return for some small compensation.Annex - Leigh, Janet (Naked Spur, The)_NRFPT_01

The two track down Vandergroat to a hill on the trail, and they attempt to scale the rocky sides to get to him. Seeing this capture attempt is recently discharged Lieutenant Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) who also offers his help. The three are able to corner and capture Vandergroat, who is accompanied by a woman, Lina Patch (Janet Leigh). After talking to Anderson, Kemp learns that his discharge papers read “morally unstable” and that Anderson is wanted by the local Indian tribes.

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Vandergroat sets the record straight that Kemp is no lawman, and that he had hidden the fact that there was a $5,000 reward for capturing Vandergroat. Tate and Anderson demand their share of the reward money, and decide to stick with Kemp until Vandergroat is delivered back in Kansas. Vandergroat realizes the brewing distrust between the three men, as well as their individual pressure points, and sets about working them against each other so that he can ultimately escape.

Early in the journey, the small group have a run-in with the Blackfoot Indians who are after Anderson. After sending Anderson away to fend for himself, the group is attacked when he brings the battle back towards Kemp and the others. They fight the Indians off, but Kemp is wounded in the leg.

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 11.50.15 PMAs Lina tends to Kemp, it’s revealed that he lost his ranch back home after leaving it with the woman he loved when he went to fight in the Civil War. When he returned, the woman had left with another man and sold the ranch out from under him. Kemp hoped that Vandergroat’s reward money would buy back his ranch, but splitting it three ways won’t be enough.

Vandergroat tries to convince the group to leave Kemp behind to catch up with them, but Kemp smartly insists that they stick together. Vandergroat tries sabotaging Kemp’s saddle by unbuckling the cinch and trying to knock him down a cliff as his saddle comes loose. After this fails, Vandergroat tells Lina, who is slowly falling for Kemp, to seduce him as a distraction when they camp at a cave for the night. She does, but Vandergroat is caught trying to escape.Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 11.51.12 PM

The final showdown takes place near a raging river after Vandergroat and Lina manage to get away from camp. Having promised Tate to show him where a prosperous gold vein is, Vandergroat and Lina are able to ride away with Tate’s help. Vandergroat then kills the man in cold blood with a shotgun, and he and Lina take to high ground. Having heard the shots, Kemp and Anderson come in pursuit. Lina, having finally realized that Vandergroat is despicable, saves Kemp when she grabs Vandergroat’s barrel and causes him to miss his shot. Kemp throws his spur into Vandergroat’s face, which allows Anderson to get a shot off. Vandergroat falls into the river below. Knowing that the reward was dead or alive, Anderson tries to wade into the rushing water to retrieve Vandergroat’s body, which is hung up on a tree. Anderson is rushed away by more river debris as Vandergroat’s body is hauled in by Kemp.

Lina begs Kemp to leave Vandergroat and start fresh with her in California, but Kemp is dead-set on taking the body back for the reward money. He finally breaks down and decides to put the past behind him and begin anew, and the film ends with the burial of Vandergroat and Kemp and Lina riding off to their new beginning.

Stewart is at his paranoid best here. From the start, his morals are questionable, and he’s ruthless. The interesting thing about Jimmy Stewart to me is how this lanky and unassuming man could all of sudden portray a man on the edge. Eyes wide and teeth gritted, there was no doubt that these Stewart characters were not to be messed with. Yet at the core of these characters were troubled men with checkered pasts. Things had been done to them and it was almost natural that they wanted to avenge those wrongs. In the end, even after blood had been shed, there still was a redeeming quality to Stewart’s anti-heros in that the payoff wasn’t easy, nor was it necessarily right or totally satisfying. I think this can be seen in the final scene of The Naked Spur when Kemp pretty much has a breakdown over bringing back Vandergroat’s body for the reward, what he’s been chasing after for so long, and what the “right” thing to do in the present is.

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 11.51.39 PMThe Naked Spur was mostly filmed around the area of Durango, Colorado, which historically started as a railway town for the Rio Grande Railroad. According to writer and historian Frederic B. Wildfang, it was during the filming of The Naked Spur that Jimmy Stewart dedicated a monument in town, marking the area as the “Hollywood of the Rockies.”¹ While there is a ruggedness to the San Juan Mountains, it’s an interesting setting for a tale of individual and interpersonal struggle as there is a lush beauty to the mountain landscape that seems almost in opposition to the band of weary characters that traverse its vistas.

Apart from its one action scene with the Blackfoot, this western focuses mostly on the psychological interplay between its five characters. While there is some gunfighting and fisticuffs between them, most of the fighting is verbal. As good as Stewart is in this role, Robert Ryan matches him blow for blow as the crafty Vandergroat. While Meeker’s Anderson is wonderfully slimy the entire time (morally unstable is correct), it is Mitchell’s Tate that elicits the most sympathy as the gullible, down-on-his-luck prospector who is just trying to get a break. Leigh is also good here, although honestly her role doesn’t give her much to work with, and at times her character is treated with quite a bit of misogyny, which is difficult to watch.

The Naked Spur remains one of my favorite westerns because it’s a smart film that seeks to push the genre out from its action movie, good vs. bad stereotypes. It’s in many ways a noir in color, a revenge tale with a questionable hero. The Naked Spur demonstrates that wide open spaces and cowboy hats can be just as claustrophobic and tense as cityscapes and trench coats.

¹Frederick B. Wildfang, Images of America: Durango (Charlston: Arcadia, 2009), 89.

 

Posted in 1950s, Actors, Jimmy Stewart Project, Western | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments