West-Teen Angst: GUNMAN’S WALK (Columbia 1958)


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GUNMAN’S WALK may not be a classic Western like THE SEARCHERS or HIGH NOON, but it was entertaining enough to hold my interest. That’s due in large part to a change of pace performance by All-American 50’s Teen Idol Tab Hunter as a sort-of Rebel Without A Cause On The Range, an unlikable sociopath with daddy issues, aided and abetted by Phil Karlson’s taut direction and some gorgeous panoramic Cinemascope shots by DP Charles Lawton Jr.

Boisterous cattle rancher Lee Hackett (Van Heflin) is one of those Men-Who-Tamed-The-West types, a widower with two sons. Eldest Ed (Hunter) is a privileged, racist creep who’s obsessed with guns, while younger Davy (played by another 50’s Teen Idol, James Darren) is more reserved. The Hacketts are about to embark on a wild horse round-up, and enlist two half-breed Sioux, the brothers of pretty young Clee (Kathryn Grant,  young wife of crooner Bing Crosby).

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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: The Greatest Show on Earth (dir by Cecil B. DeMille)


Jimmy Stewart is Buttons the Clown!

Listen, there’s a lot of things that can be said about the 1952 Best Picture winner, The Greatest Show on Earth.  Not only was it one of three Cecil B, DeMille films to be nominated for best picture (along with 1934’s Cleopatra and 1956’s The Ten Commandments) but it was also the only one to win.  It brought Cecil B. DeMille his first and only nomination for best director.  (DeMille lost that directing Oscar to John Ford but he still took home an award, as the producer of The Greatest Show On Earth.)  The Greatest Show on Earth not only featured Charlton Heston in his first starring role but, with a finale that featured everyone involved in the same spectacular train crash, it also set the standard for the countless disaster movies that would follow.

But, with all of that in mind, the main thing that you’ll remember about this movie is that Jimmy Stewart was Buttons the Clown.

Buttons is a beloved member of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus.  He travels with the circus across the country, entertaining children and generally helping out wherever he can.  Everyone loves Buttons, despite the fact that no one has ever seen him without his makeup.  (That said, you only have to hear him speak to immediately recognize him as being played by Jimmy Stewart.)  Not even the circus’s no-nonsense manager, Brad Braden (Charlton Heston, naturally), knows what Buttons actually looks like.  Everyone assumes that Buttons is just a dedicated performer, a method clown.

However, it turns out that Buttons has a secret.  Of course, nearly everyone at the circus has a secret but Buttons’s secret is a little bit more serious than just a love triangle or a case of professional jealousy.  There’s a reason why Buttons is surprisingly good at providing first aid to the members of the circus.  Before he was a clown, Buttons was a doctor.  And, while he was a doctor, he killed his wife.

NO!  NOT JIMMY STEWART!

In Buttons’s defense, it was a mercy killing and he feels really bad about it.  That, of course, doesn’t matter to the FBI agent (Henry WIlcoxon) who suspects that the doctor may be hiding among the circus performers.  At first, Buttons views that train crash as the perfect opportunity to escape but then he finds out that many of his fellow performers have been seriously injured.  A doctor is needed.  Perhaps even a doctor in clown makeup….

Even under all that makeup, Jimmy Stewart does a great job of bringing Buttons to life.  Sometimes, we associate Stewart so much with his famous way of speaking that we overlook just what a good actor Jimmy Stewart actually was.  Even before you discover why Buttons is running from the cops, Stewart does a good job of capturing the sadness and the regret that lies at the heart of Button.  He’s truly a tragic clown.

Buttons’s status as a fugitive is just one of the many subplots to be found in The Greatest Show On Earth.  There’s a lot of drama (not to mention parades and performances) to get through before that train crashes.  Brad, for instance, is struggling to keep the circus from going bankrupt.  Meanwhile, his girlfriend, Holly (Betty Hutton), is torn between him and the arrogant but charming Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde).  In fact, every woman in the circus — including Gloria Grahame and Dorothy Lamour — is in love with the Great Sebastian.  Sebastian is a bit self-centered but he’s famous enough to ensure that the circus won’t have to be closed.  Or, at least, he is until he’s injured in a trapeze accident.  Will Sebastian ever perform again?  Meanwhile, there’s a jealous elephant trainer named Klaus (Lyle Bettinger) and a crooked concessionaire named Harry (John Kellog).  A local gangster, Mr. Henderson (Lawrence Tierney), is trying to muscle his way into the circus’s business.  Is it any surprise that Brad always seems to be in something of a bad mood?  He’s got a lot to deal with!

And yes, it’s all a bit overblown and a bit silly.  And yes, the film really does feel like it was meant to be a commercial for Ringling Bros.  And yet, in its way, the film definitely works.  There’s a sincerity at the heart of the film, one that’s epitomized by Cecil B. DeMille’s opening narration.  “”A fierce, primitive fighting force that smashes relentlessly forward against impossible odds: That is the circus — and this is the story of the biggest of the Big Tops — and of the men and women who fight to make it — The Greatest Show On Earth!”  DeMille was 71 years old when he made The Greatest Show On Earth and he was coming to the end of a legendary filmmaking career.  DeMille was one of the founders of the American film industry and you can argue that, if not for some of his silent spectacles, Hollywood would have always remained just a neglected suburb of Los Angeles.  If anyone understood that importance of that old saying, “The show must go on!,” it was Cecil B. DeMille.  And really, that’s what The Greatest Show On Earth is all about.  It’s a tribute to the performers who refuse to give up.  Love triangles?  Fugitive clowns?  Injured acrobats?  Lawrence Tierney?  No matter what, the show must go on!

The Greatest Show On Earth is often described as being one of the worst films to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.  That has more to do with the quality of the films that it beat — High Noon, The Quiet Man, Moulin Rouge, and Ivanhoe — than the film itself.  The Greatest Show On Earth is old-fashioned and a bit silly but it’s still entertaining.  Should it have beaten High Noon?  That would be a definite no.  But it’s still better than Crash.

Hollywood History Lesson: Errol Flynn in SANTA FE TRAIL (Warner Brothers 1940)


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A movie lover could get pretty spoiled living on a steady diet of Errol Flynn/Warner Brothers epics from the 30’s and 40’s. You’ve got Flynn, the personification of the classic “movie star”, performing heroic feats and romancing his leading lady (usually Olivia de Havilland ). A historical setting   serving as the backdrop to move the story along, expertly directed by Michael Curtiz or Raoul Walsh, a cast full of Hollywood’s greatest character actors, a majestic music score (mainly Max Steiner , but there were others equally as talented), action, drama, humor, conflict… what more could a film fan ask for?

SANTA FE TRAIL has all this and more, an energetic pre-Civil War tale guaranteed to hold your interest for its 110 minutes no matter which side of the Mason-Dixon Line you live on. It’s characters are drawn from history, but historic accuracy be damned… these films were all about…

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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Shane (dir by George Stevens)


“Hey, Shane!  Come back, Shane!”

There’s a few ways in which you can view the 1953 film, Shane.

The more popular view is that it’s a Western about a man named Shane (Alan Ladd) who rides into town and gets a job working for the Starretts, Joe (Van Heflin) and Marian (Jean Arthur).  Joe is a farmer who is determined to hold onto his land, despite the efforts of cattle baron Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) to force him off of it.  While we don’t learn much about Shane’s background, it becomes apparent that he’s a man who can fight.  That comes in handy when Ryker brings in a sinister gunfighter named Wilson (Jack Palance).

Another view is that Shane is the story of a man who just wants to settle down but, instead, finds himself continually hounded by an annoying little kid, to the extent that he finally gets involved in a gun battle just so he’ll have an excuse to leave town and get away from the little brat.  Little Joey Starrett (Brandon deWilde) idolizes Shane from the minute that he comes riding up.  When he hears that Shane refused to get into a fight at the local saloon, Joey demands to know whether it was true.  He tells his mom that he loves Shane almost as much as he loves his father.  When Shane does get into a brawl with all of Ryker’s men, Joey stands in the corner and eats candy.  And then, when Shane tries to leave town, Joey runs behind him shouting, “Come back, Shane!  Come back!”

Myself, I think of it as being the story of Frank Torrey (Elisha Cook, Jr.).  Frank is the farmer that’s been nicknamed “Stonewall,” due to his status as a former Confederate and his quick temper.  Stonewall may be smaller than the other farmers but he’s usually the quickest to take offense.  Still, it’s impossible not to like him, largely because he’s played by Elisha Cook, Jr.  When Wilson feels the need to put the farmers in their place, he does so by picking a fight with Torrey.  Standing on a porch in the rain, looking down on the smaller man, Wilson starts to insult both him and the South.  When Torrey finally starts to reach for his gun, Wilson shoots him dead.  While Torrey lies in the mud, Wilson smirks.  It’s a shocking scene, all the more so for being shown in a long shot.  (By forcing those of us in the audience to keep our distance from the shooting, the film makes us feel as powerless as the farmers.)  If you didn’t already hate Wilson and Ryker, you certainly will after this scene.

Shane is a deceptively simple film, one in which many of the details are left open for interpretation.  We never learn anything about Shane’s background.  He’s a man who shows up, tries to make a life for himself, and then leaves.  He’s a marksman and an obviously experienced brawler but, unlike Ryker’s men, he never specifically looks for violence.  In fact, he often seems to avoid it.  Why?  The film doesn’t tell us but there are hints that Shane is haunted by his past.  Shane seems to want a chance to have a life like the Starretts but, once he’s forced to again draw his gun, he knows that possibility no longer exists.

Is Shane in love with Marian Starrett?  It certainly seems so but, again, the film never specifically tells us.  Instead, it all depends on how one interprets the often terse dialogue and the occasional glances that Marian and Shane exchance.  When Shane and Joe get into a fist fight to determine who will face Ryker and Wilson, is Shane really trying to protect Joe or is it that he knows Marian will be heart-broken if her husband is killed?

One thing’s for sure.  Little Joey sure does love Shane.  “Come back, Shane!”  Little Joey follows Shane everywhere, with a wide-eyed look on his face.  To be honest, it didn’t take too long for me to get sick of Little Joey.  Whenever director George Stevens needed a reaction shot, he would cut to Joey looking dumb-founded.  Brandon deWilde was 11 years when he appeared in Shane and he was nominated for an Oscar but he’s actually pretty annoying in the role.  Elisha Cook, Jr. was far more impressive and deserving of a nomination.

I know that many people consider Shane to be a classic.  I thought it was good, as long as the action was focused on the adults.  Alan Ladd plays Shane like a man who is afraid to get too comfortable in any situation and the film works best when it compares his reticence to Wilson’s cocky confidence.  Whenever Joey took center stage, I found myself wanting to cover my ears.

Shane was nominated for Best Picture but lost to From Here To Eternity.

Cleaning Out the DVR #17: Film Noir Festival 3


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To take my mind off the sciatic nerve pain I was suffering last week, I immersed myself on the dark world of film noir. The following quartet of films represent some of the genre’s best, filled with murder, femme fatales, psychopaths, and sleazy living. Good times!!

I’ll begin chronologically with BOOMERANG (20th Century-Fox 1947), director Elia Kazan’s true-life tale of a drifter (an excellent Arthur Kennedy ) falsely accused of murdering a priest in cold blood, and the doubting DA (Dana Andrews ) who fights an uphill battle against political corruption to exonerate him. Filmed on location in Stamford, CT and using many local residents as extras and bit parts, the literate script by Richard Murphy (CRY OF THE CITY, PANIC IN THE STREETS, COMPULSION) takes a realistic look behind the scenes at an American mid-sized city, shedding light into it’s darker corners.

Andrews is solid as the honest…

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The Fabulous Forties #42: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (dir by Lewis Milestone)


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The 41st film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was the 1946 film noir, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.  While The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is definitely a superior example of noir and features Barbara Stanwyck in one of her best femme fatale roles, the film is best remembered for being the film debut of a Hollywood icon.

In December of this year, Kirk Douglas will turn 100 years old.  He is one of the few stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood left.  (Olivia De Havilland is another.  She’ll be turning 100 on the 1st of July.)  Though he’s had his share of health issues over the past few years, it is somehow not surprising that Kirk Douglas is going to make it to a hundred.  In fact, it probably wouldn’t be surprising if he lasted for another hundred after that.  Regardless of how old or young he may have been at any point in his career, Kirk Douglas has always epitomized virile masculinity.  Whenever you see Kirk Douglas in a film, you know that you might not like or trust his character but you definitely want him around if things start to get tough.  That remains true whether you’re watching Kirk in The Bad And The Beautiful or in Holocaust 2000.

That’s why it’s interesting to see Kirk cast very much against type in his very first film.  In The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Kirk Douglas plays Walter O’Neil.  Walter is the district attorney of a Pennsylvania mining town called Iverstown.  He is married to Martha Ivers (Barbara Stanwyck), the niece of the widow of the man who founded Iverstown.  Walter owes almost all of his success to the influence of the Ivers family and he knows it.  He’s also in love with Martha but she doesn’t love him.  And he knows that as well.  Walter deals with his insecurity by drinking.

Walter and Martha have a secret.  Seventeen years ago, Walter witnessed Martha murder her abusive aunt.  (The aunt is played by Judith Anderson, the creepy housekeeper from Rebecca.)  Walter helped Martha to cover up the crime, lying that he saw a burglar beat the aunt to death.  As a result of their lies, an innocent man was executed for the murder.

Now, many years later, Sam Masterson (Van Heflin) has returned to Iverstown.  Sam was a friend to both Martha and Walter when they were younger.  Sam came from the poor section of town and ran away shortly after the death of Martha’s aunt.  Walter has always suspected that Martha truly loves Sam.  When Sam — now a drifter and a gambler — shows up in town, Walter fears that he knows the truth about the aunt’s death.  Walter is scared that Sam is going to blackmail him.  Even worse, he’s scared that Sam is going to steal Martha away from him.

Walter has reason to be worried.  Having met a troubled young woman named Toni (Lizabeth Scott), Sam believe he is no longer in love with Martha.  However, Martha does claim to love Sam and Sam finds himself being drawn back to her.  In fact, Martha loves Sam enough to suggest that maybe he should murder Walter…

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is an entertaining melodrama, one that features great performances from Heflin, Stanwyck, and Scott.  However, in the end, it’s mostly interesting because Kirk Douglas is not only making his debut in a totally atypical role but he also does a fantastic job.  If The Strange Love of Martha Ivers had been made in the 50s, Kirk probably would have been cast as Sam but he’s unexpectedly perfect in the role of the angry, self-loathing, and ultimately tragic Walter.

You watch The Strange Love of Martha Ivers and, even with Kirk Douglas cast against type, you can’t help but think, “No wonder he made it to a hundred!”

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Happy 100th Birthday Glenn Ford: 3:10 TO YUMA (Columbia 1957)


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Actor Glenn Ford was born 100 years ago today in Sainte-Christine-d’Auergne, Quebec, Canada. Yes, the All-American star was actually Canadian, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1939. That same year, Ford signed a contract with Columbia Pictures and began a long, prosperous career with the studio. After getting noticed in films like HEAVEN WITH A BARBED WIRE FENCE, SO ENDS OUR NIGHT, and TEXAS (his first Western), Ford took a break from acting and joined the Marine Corps to serve in World War II.

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After the war, Glenn Ford was one of Hollywood’s top leading men. He hit it big with 1946’s GILDA, co-starring Rita Hayworth in what may very well be the first true film noir. Soon he found himself the hero in a string of successes: FRAMED, MAN FROM THE ALAMO, THE BIG HEAT , BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, JUBAL, and TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON. But my favorite Ford role casts him…

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