Happy birthday, America!
Sing it, stars of yesteryear!
Happy birthday, America!
Sing it, stars of yesteryear!
Since today is the 113th anniversary of the birth of John Wayne, I decided to watch the 1962 classic, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance! And then I decided to share a scene that I love from the film.
The famous steak scene features three of the greatest screen icons of Hollywood’s golden age: James Stewart, John Wayne, and Lee Marvin. Lee Marvin is the bully who is terrorizing the entire town. James Stewart is the idealist who thinks that the law, and not violence, is the answer. And John Wayne is …. well, he’s John Wayne. He’s the only man in town who can stand up to Lee Marvin but, at the same time, he’s also aware that his time is coming to a close. In the scene below, all three of the characters display their different approaches to life and a disagreement with steak nearly leads to violence.
This scene — and really, the entire film — features these three actors at their best. John Wayne is an actor who is often described as having “just played himself” but that’s really not quite fair. While Wayne’s outsized persona definitely does influence how the audience reacts to any character that he plays, he was a better actor than he’s often given credit for being. That’s especially evident in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in which Wayne plays a confident man’s man who knows that fate is closing in on him. The coming of civilization (represented by James Stewart) will be great for the town of Shinbone but it will also leave men like Wayne’s Ton Doniphon with nowhere to go. The coming of civilization means that the heroes of the past are destined to become obsolete.
Enjoy this scene from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance:
The 1965 biblical epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told, tells the story of the life of Jesus, from the Nativity to the Ascension. It’s probably the most complete telling of the story that you’ll ever find. It’s hard to think of a single details that’s left out and, as a result, the film has a four hour running time. Whether you’re a believer or not, that’s a really long time to watch a reverent film that doesn’t even feature the campy excesses of something like The Ten Commandments.
(There’s actually several different version of The Greatest Story Ever Told floating around. There’s a version that’s a little over two hours. There’s a version that’s close to four hours. Reportedly, the uncut version of the film ran for four hour and 20 minutes.)
Max von Sydow plays Jesus. On the one hand, that seems like that should work because Max von Sydow was a great actor who gave off an otherworldly air. On the other hand, it totally doesn’t work because von Sydow gives an oddly detached performance. The Greatest Story Ever Told was von Sydow’s first American film and, at no point, does he seem particularly happy about being involved with it. von Sydow is a very cerebral and rather reserved Jesus, one who makes his points without a hint of passion or charisma. When he’s being friendly, he offers up a half-smile. When he has to rebuke his disciples for their doubt, he sounds more annoyed than anything else. He’s Jesus if Jesus was a community college philosophy professor.
The rest of the huge cast is populated with familiar faces. The Greatest Story Ever Told takes the all-star approach to heart and, as a result, even the minor roles are played by actors who will be familiar to anyone who has spent more than a few hours watching TCM. Many of them are on screen for only a few seconds, which makes their presence all the more distracting. Sidney Poitier shows up as Simon of Cyrene. Pat Boone is an angel. Roddy McDowall is Matthew and Sal Mineo is Uriah and John Wayne shows up as a centurion and delivers his one line in his trademark drawl.
A few of the actors do manage to stand out and make a good impression. Telly Savalas is a credible Pilate, playing him as being neither smug nor overly sympathetic but instead as a bureaucrat who can’t understand why he’s being forced to deal with all of this. Charlton Heston has just the right intensity for the role of John the Baptist while Jose Ferrer is properly sleazy as Herod. In the role Judas, David McCallum looks at the world through suspicious eyes and does little to disguise his irritation with the rest of the world. The Greatest Story Ever Told does not sentimentalize Judas or his role in Jesus’s arrest. For the most part, he’s just a jerk. Finally, it’s not exactly surprising when Donald Pleasence shows up as Satan but Pleasence still gives a properly evil performance, giving all of his lines a mocking and often sarcastic bite.
The Greatest Story Ever Told was directed by George Stevens, a legitimately great director who struggles to maintain any sort of narrative momentum in this film. Watching The Greatest Story Ever Told, it occurred to me that the best biblical films are the ones like Ben-Hur and The Robe, which both largely keep Jesus off-screen and instead focus on how his life and teachings and the reports of his resurrection effected other people. Stevens approaches the film’s subject with such reverence that the film becomes boring and that’s something that should never happen when you’re making a film set in Judea during the Roman era.
I do have to admit that, despite all of my criticism of the film, I do actually kind of like The Greatest Story Ever Told. It’s just such a big production that it’s hard not to be a little awed by it all. That huge cast may be distracting but it’s still a little bit fun to sit there and go, “There’s Shelley Winters! There’s John Wayne! There’s Robert Blake and Martin Landau!” That said, as far as biblical films are concerned, you’re still better off sticking with Jesus Christ Superstar.
Sing it, Duke!
John Wayne starred in some of the screen’s most iconic Westerns, but I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for ANGEL AND THE BADMAN. Perhaps it’s because the film fell into Public Domain in the mid-70’s, and I’ve had the opportunity to view it so many times. Yet I wouldn’t keep coming back to it if it weren’t a really good movie. It’s Wayne’s first film as producer, and though it has plenty of that trademark John Wayne action and humor, it’s a bit different from your typical ‘Big Duke’ film.
Wayne plays Quirt Evans, an outlaw on the run. The wounded Quirt encounters a Quaker family, the Worths, who take him to file a land claim before the big guy finally passes out. They bring him back to their family farm to nurse him back to health, and pretty daughter Penny, unschooled in the ways of the…
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What’s this?? A “Northern” Western set in 1900 Alaska Gold Rush territory starring my two favorite cowboys, John Wayne and Randolph Scott ? With the ever-enticing Marlene Dietrich thrown in as a sexy saloon owner? Count me in! THE SPOILERS is a big, brawling, boisterous film loaded with romance, action, and, most importantly, a sense of humor. It’s the kind of Hollywood entertainment epic that, as they say, “just don’t make ’em like that anymore”. I’ve never been quite sure who “they” are, but in regards to THE SPOILERS, they’re right – and more’s the pity!
Rex Beach’s popular 1906 novel had been filmed three times before (1914, 1923, 1930), and would be one more time after (in 1955), but with The Duke, Rugged Randy, and La Dietrich on board, this has got to be the best of the bunch. Even though audiences were more than familiar with the story…
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Critics of John Wayne gave him a lot of flak for not serving his country during World War II, especially in the turbulent 1960’s, labeling him a phony patriot and celluloid warrior. The truth is Wayne DID try to get into the war, but was stymied in his attempts on two fronts: Republic Studios boss Herbert Yates, who filed for deferments so he wouldn’t lose his cash cow, and Wayne’s first wife Josie, who failed to forward letters from OSS Chief Wild Bill Donovan’s office. Be that as it may, The Duke was no phony, and did what he could on the home front for the war effort.
SANDS OF IWO JIMA was made four years after the war as a tribute to the brave souls of the United States Marine Corps who fought against the Japanese in the South Pacific. Wayne plays the tough top kick Sgt. John Stryker…
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In 1973, John Wayne released America, Why I Love Her, an album of speeches about why the Duke loved America. In honor of Independence Day, here’s the title track:
Happy birthday, America!
Brawny actor Gordon Jones (1911-1963) was never a big star, but an actor the big stars could depend on to give a good performance. Stars like John Wayne, Roy Rogers, and Abbott & Costello knew Gordon could deliver the goods in support, and he spent over thirty years as a working class actor. Not bad for a small town kid from Alden, Iowa!
Jones originally came to California on a football scholarship, playing guard for UCLA. Like his fellow Iowan John Wayne , Gordon began his film career in uncredited parts, and soon moved up in casts lists with films like RED SALUTE (1935), STRIKE ME PINK (1936), and THERE GOES MY GIRL (1937). Gordon’s big lug persona made him ideal for second leads as the hero’s pal, though he did get some leading roles in Poverty Row vehicles like…
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(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.)