Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: How The West Was Won (dir by Henry Hathaway, George Marshall, John Ford, and Richard Thorpe)


(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day.  These films could be nominees or they could be winners.  They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee!  We’ll see how things play out.  Today, I take a look at the 1963 best picture nominee, How The West Was Won!)

How was the west won?

According to this film, the west was won by the brave men and women who set out in search of a better life.  Some of them were mountain men.  Some of them worked for the railroads.  Some of them rode in wagons.  Some of them gambled.  Some of them sang songs.  Some shot guns.  Some died in the Civil War.  The thing they all had in common was that they won the west and everyone had a familiar face.  How The West Was Won is the history of the west, told through the eyes of a collection of character actors and aging stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age.

In many ways, How The West Was Won was the Avatar of the early 60s.  It was a big, long, epic film that was designed to make viewers feel as if they were in the middle of the action.  Avatar used 3D while How The West Was Won used Cinerama.  Each scene was shot with three synchronized cameras and, when the film was projected onto a curved Cinerama screen, it was meant to create a truly immersive experience.  The film is full of tracking shots and, while watching it on TCM last night, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to see it in 1963 and to feel as if I was plunging straight into the world of the old west.  The film’s visuals were undoubtedly diminished by being viewed on a flat screen and yet, there were still a few breath-taking shots of the western landscape.

The other thing that How The West Was Won had in common with Avatar was a predictable storyline and some truly unfortunate dialogue.  I can understand why How The West Was Won was awarded two technical Oscars (for editing and sound) but, somehow, it also picked up the award for Best Writing, Screenplay or Story.  How The West Was Won is made up of five different parts, each one of which feels like a condensed version of a typical western B-movie.  There’s the mountain man helping the settlers get down the river story.  There’s the Civil War story.  There’s the railroad story and the outlaw story and, of course, the gold rush story.  None of it’s particularly original and the film is so poorly paced that some sections of the film feel rushed while others seem to go on forever.

Some of the film’s uneven consistency was undoubtedly due to the fact that it was directed by four different directors.  Henry Hathaway handled three sections while John Ford took care of the Civil War, George Marshall deal with the coming of the railroad, and an uncredited Richard Thorpe apparently shot a bunch of minor connecting scenes.

And yet, it’s hard not to like How The West Was Won.  Like a lot of the epic Hollywood films of the late 50s and early 60s, it has its own goofy charm.  The film is just so eager to please and remind the audience that they’re watching a story that could only be told on the big screen.  Every minute of the film feels like a raised middle finger to the threat of television.  “You’re not going to see this on your little idiot box!” the film seems to shout at every moment.  “Think you’re going to get Cinerama on NBC!?  THINK AGAIN!”

Then there’s the huge cast.  As opposed to Avatar, the cast of How The West Was Won is actually fun to watch.   Admittedly, a lot of them are either miscast or appear to simply be taking advantage of a quick payday but still, it’s interesting to see just how many iconic actors wander through this film.

For instance, the film starts and, within minutes, you’re like, “Hey!  That’s Jimmy Stewart playing a mountain man who is only supposed to be in his 20s!”

There’s Debbie Reynolds as a showgirl who inherits a gold claim!

Is that Gregory Peck as a cynical gambler?  And there’s Henry Fonda as a world-weary buffalo hunter!  And Richard Widmark as a tyrannical railroad employee and Lee J. Cobb as a town marshal and Eli Wallach as an outlaw!

See that stern-faced settler over there?  It’s Karl Malden!

What’s that?  The Civil War’s broken out?  Don’t worry, General John Wayne is here to save the day.  And there’s George Peppard fighting for the Union and Russ Tamblyn fighting for the Confederacy!  And there’s Agnes Moorehead and Thelma Ritter and Robert Preston and … wait a minute?  Is that Spencer Tracy providing narration?

When Eli Wallach’s gang shows up, keep an eye out for a 36 year-old Harry Dean Stanton.  And, earlier, when Walter Brennan’s family of river pirates menaces Karl Malden, be sure to look for an evil-looking pirate who, for about twenty seconds, stares straight at the camera.  When you see him, be sure to say, “Hey, it’s Lee Van Cleef!”

How The West Was Won is a big, long, thoroughly silly movie but, if you’re a fan of classic film stars, it’s worth watching.  It was a huge box office success and picked up 8 Oscar nominations.  It lost best picture to Tom Jones.

(By the way, in my ideal fantasy world, From Russia With Love secured a 1963 U.S. release, as opposed to having to wait until 1964, and became the first spy thriller to win the Oscar for Best Picture.)

Film Review: The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe (dir by Harry Lachman)


I have to admit that the 1942 film, The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe, turned out to be far different from what I was expecting.

Just based on the title, I was expecting it would be a highly fictionalized, borderline silly film about Edgar Allan Poe defeating his romantic rivals and winning the hand of the woman he loved while still finding time to write The Raven.  I figured that there would be at least a few gentlemanly fisticuffs, with Poe portrayed as a combination of Rhett Butler and Cary Grant.  Looking at the title, it was easy for me to imagine the film closing with Poe kissing his future wife and then looking straight at the camera.  “Quoth the Raven!” he would say and wink while romantic music swelled in the background…

But no.  The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe is actually a very conventional biopic.  With a running time of only 67 minutes, the movie often feels rather rushed but it still manages to include most of the better known details of Edgar Allan Poe’s short but eventful life.  (An ever-present narrator is always ready to fill us in on every thing that happens off-screen.)  The film doesn’t spend much time on what initially inspired Poe’s macabre imagination.  There’s a scene of Poe, as a child, standing on a desolate hill and looking at a raven perched in a dead tree.  With the exception of an extended section that deals with Annabel Lee, that’s about as deep as the movie is willing to get as far as Poe’s art is concerned.

When Poe grows up, he’s played by actor Sheppard Strudwick, who has a good mustache but never exactly comes across as being the type of tortured genius who would eventually end up both revolutionizing literature and drinking himself to death.  The majority of the film deals with Poe’s advocacy for copyright reform, which is an important issue but not exactly the most cinematic of concerns.  Poe survives college.  Poe tries to sell The Raven for $25.  Eventually, Poe marries Virginia Clemm (Linda Darnell) and her subsequent sickness and death leads to not only Poe’s greatest work but also his own tragic end.

Along the way, Poe meets both Thomas Jefferson and Charles Dickens.  Jefferson shows up long enough to tell a young Poe that he’s a good writer and that he needs to stop gambling.  Dickens meets Poe and encourages him to continue to advocate for better copyright laws.

It is known that Poe and Dickens actually did meet but did Poe also meet Thomas Jefferson?  Legend says that he did but no one knows for sure.   Here’s what we do know:

Poe attended the University of Virginia in 1826.  The University’s founder, former President Thomas Jefferson, was still alive in 1826 and would often invite promising students to Monticello.  Whether Jefferson was still doing that when Poe enrolled at the University of Virginia is questionable.  Jefferson died five months after Poe started his studies.

As for Dickens, Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe admired each other’s writing and they met in Philadelphia during Dickens’s 1842 tour of North America.  No record has been kept of what they discussed, though some think that Dickens told Poe about his pet raven and perhaps inspired Poe’s best-remembered poem.  In the movie, they discuss copyright laws, which is nowhere near as much fun.

(When it comes to Poe’s meetings with both Jefferson and Dickens, it is perhaps best to remember the lesson of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and print the legend.)

The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe is a very short film and an obviously low-budget one as well.  When the presence of that somewhat pedantic narrator, The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe feels more like an educational special than a real movie.  It’s an okay introduction to Poe’s life but, ultimately, the best way to get to know Edgar Allan Poe is to sit down and start reading.

Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: High Noon (dir by Fred Zinnemann)


(I am currently in the process of cleaning out my DVR!  I recorded the 1952 best picture nominee, High Noon, off of Retroplex on January 28th.  This review is scheduled to posted at 12 noon, central time.  Clever, no?)

High Noon is a testament to the power of simplicity.

It’s a famous film, one that continues to be influential and which is still studied today.  It’s known for being one of the greatest westerns ever made but it’s also a powerful political allegory.  Even people who haven’t seen the film know that High Noon is the moment of the day when someone shows their true character.  Just as everyone knows the plot of Star Wars, regardless of whether they’ve actually watched the film, everyone knows that High Noon is about a town marshal who, after the entire town deserts him, is forced to face down a gang of gunmen on his own.

And yet, it really is a surprisingly simple movie.  It’s the quintessential western, filmed in black-and-white and taking place in the type of frontier town that you would expect to find hiding on the back lot of an old movie studio.  Though wonderfully brought to life by a talented cast, the majority of the characters are familiar western archetypes.

There’s the aging town marshal, a simple man of integrity.  Gary Cooper won an Oscar for playing the role of Will Kane.  When we first see Will, he’s getting married in a frontier courtroom.  All of the town leaders have come to his wedding and all of them wish him luck in the future.  Will is retiring and everyone agrees that the town would never have survived and prospered if not for Will Kane.  After all, Will is the one who captured the notorious outlaw, Frank Miller.  When the news comes that Miller has been pardoned and will be arriving back in town on the noon train, everyone tells Will that he should just leave town and go on his honeymoon.  However, the new marshal will not be arriving for another day and Will is not willing to abandon the town.  However, the town is more than willing to abandon him.

Will’s new wife is Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly).  Amy is a Quaker and a pacifist.  Amy begs Kane to leave town but Kane says that he’s never run from a fight.  Amy tells him that she’ll be leaving on that noon train, with or without him.  Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado) is the former girlfriend of both Kane and Miller.  She is one of the few people in town to call out everyone else’s cowardice but she is still planning to leave before Miller arrives.  As she explains it to Amy, she would never abandon Kane if he were her man but he’s not her man anymore.

The townspeople, who first appear to be so friendly and honest, soon prove themselves to be cowards.  None of them are willing to stand behind Will.  The Mayor (Thomas Mitchell) publicly castigates Will for staying in town and putting everyone else in danger.  Deputy Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) says that he’ll only help Will if Will recommends him as his replacement.  The town minister (Morgan Farley) is more concerned with why Will was married by the justice of the peace, instead of in the church.  The town judge (Otto Kruger) leaves early, saying he can be a judge in some other town.  One of the few people to show Will any sympathy is the former marshal (Lon Chaney, Jr.) but, unfortunately, he is too old and crippled by arthritis to provide any help.

Though it all, Frank’s gang sits at the train station and waits for Frank to arrive.  One gang member is played be Lee Van Cleef.  He looks really mean!

With a brisk running time of 84 minutes, High Noon unfolds in real time.  Throughout the film, as Kane grows increasingly desperate in his attempt to find anyone brave enough to stand with him, we see clocks in the background of nearly every scene.  We hear the ticking.  We know that both noon and Frank Miller are getting closer and closer.  We know that, soon, Will will have no other option but to stand on the street by himself and defend a town that doesn’t deserve him.

It’s simple but it’s undeniably powerful.

It’s been said that High Noon was meant to be a metaphor for the blacklist.  Frank Miller and his gang were the fascists that, having been defeated in World War II, were now coming back to power.  Will Kane was a stand-in for all the men and women of integrity who found themselves blacklisted.  The townspeople represented the studio execs who refused to challenge the blacklist.  That’s the theory and it’s probably true.  But, honestly, the political metaphor of High Noon works because it can be applied to any situation.  Will Kane is anyone who has ever had to face down the forces of totalitarianism.  He is anyone who has ever had the courage to take a lonely stand while everyone else cowered in the corner.

It’s a powerful metaphor and it’s also a genuinely entertaining movie.  The gunfight is thrilling.  The romance between Will and Amy feels real.  Even the town feels like an actual place, one that has its own history and culture.  It’s a simple film but it’s a great film.

Like a lot of great films, High Noon was nominated for best picture.  And, like a lot of great films, it lost.  In High Noon‘s case, it lost to a film that is almost its exact opposite, The Greatest Show on Earth.  However, Gary Cooper did win an Oscar for his unforgettable performance as Will Kane.

I think we tend to take classic films for granted.  Don’t do that with High Noon.  See it the next chance you get.

A Dying Man, Scared of the Dark: John Wayne in THE SHOOTIST (Paramount 1976)


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THE SHOOTIST is John Wayne’s valedictory statement, a final love letter to his many fans. The Duke was now 69 years old and not in the best of health. He’d had a cancerous lung removed back in 1964, and though the cancer was in remission, Wayne must’ve knew his days were numbered when he made this film. Three years later, he died from cancer of the stomach, intestines, and spine. There were worries about his ability to make this movie, but Wayne loved the script and was determined to do it. The result is an elegy to not only the aging actor, but to the Western genre as a whole.

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The movie begins with footage of older Wayne westerns (EL DORADO, HONDO, RED RIVER, RIO BRAVO) narrated by Ron Howard (Gillom). “His name was J.B. Books…he wasn’t an outlaw. Fact is, for a while he was a lawman…He had a credo that…

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How The West Was Fun: SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! (United Artists 1969)


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SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! is played strictly for laughs. It’s broad performances and slapstick situations won’t strain your brain, but will give you an hour and a half’s worth of escapist fun. Easy going James Garner has the lead, with solid comic support from Joan Hackett, Walter Brennan, Harry Morgan, and Jack Elam. Director Burt Kennedy made quite a few of these, and this is probably the best of the bunch.

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While burying an itinerant drifter, the townsfolk of Calendar, Colorado discover a mother lode of gold. The subsequent boom turns Calendar into a lawless, rowdy town that can’t keep a sheriff alive long enough to tame it. The town elders also can’t get their gold through without paying a 20% tribute to the mean Danby clan. Enter our hero Jason McCullough (Garner), who applies for the sheriff’s position “on a temporary basis…I’m on my way to Australia”.  Jason is a crack shot and fast…

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