Wild Wyler West: Gary Cooper is THE WESTERNER (United Artists 1940)


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It’s hard to believe that, except for two films in which he cameoed, I haven’t covered any movies starring my namesake, Gary Cooper . Nor have I written anything about any of major Hollywood director William Wyler’s works. So let’s kill two birds with one stone and take a look at 1940’s THE WESTERNER, one of the best Westerns ever. It’s a highly fictionalized account of the life and times of Judge Roy Bean (1825-1903), played by Walter Brennan in his third and final Oscar-winning role, with Cooper as a drifter at odds with “The Law West of the Pecos”.

That “law” is Bean, who sides with the open range cattlemen against the homesteaders who’ve moved into the area. Into the town of Vinagaroon rides Coop as Cole Harden on his way to California. Unfortunately for Cole, he rides in on a horse stolen from one of Bean’s cronies, and…

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Fool’s Gold: BARBARY COAST (United Artists 1935)


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BARBARY COAST probably would’ve been better had it been made during the Pre-Code era. Don’t misunderstand; I liked the film. It’s an entertaining period piece directed by Howard Hawks , with his trademark overlapping dialog and perfect eye for composition, rivaled by only a handful (Ford and Hitchcock spring immediately to mind). But for me, this tale of rowdy San Francisco during California’s Gold Rush was too sanitized by Hays Code enforcer Joseph Breen, who demanded major script changes by screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.

The result is a film that’s just misses the classic status mark. It’s 1849, and Susan Rutledge arrives in Frisco to marry her rich boyfriend, who has struck it rich in the gold strike. When she finds out he’s been killed by gambling czar Luis Chandalis, owner of the Bella Donna saloon, avaricious Susan sets her sights on him. Chandalis becomes enamored of her…

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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.)

Cold in Them Thar Hills: THE FAR COUNTRY (Universal-International 1955)


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James Stewart and Anthony Mann’s  fourth Western together, 1955’s THE FAR COUNTRY, takes them due North to the Klondike during the Gold Rush of 1896. It’s a bit more formulaic than other Stewart/Mann collaborations, but a strong cast and some gorgeous Technicolor photography by William H. Daniels more than make up for it. The film is definitely worth watching for Western fans, but I’d rank it lowest on the Stewart/Mann totem pole.

Jimmy is Jeff Webster, a headstrong cattleman who drives his herd from Wyoming to Seattle to ship up north to the beef-starved gold miners for a huge profit. Webster killed two men along the way who tried to desert the drive, and barely escapes Seattle before arriving in Skagway, Alaska. There, he unintentionally interrupts a hanging being conducted by crooked town boss ‘Judge’ Gannon, who confiscates Webster’s herd as a fine for spoiling his fun. Webster and his two…

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Killer Christmas: HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (ABC-TV Movie 1972)


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Four daughters reunite at the old family homestead during Christmas to visit their estranged, dying father. Sounds like the perfect recipe for one of those sticky-sweet Hallmark movies, right? Wrong, my little elves! HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS, originally broadcast as part of ABC-TV’s “Movie of the Week” series (1969-1975) is part proto-slasher, part psycho-biddie shocker, and a whole lot of fun! It plays kind of like a 70’s exploitation film, only with a high-powered cast that includes Sally Field, Eleanor Parker, Julie Harris , and Walter Brennan, a script by Joseph (PSYCHO) Stefano, and direction courtesy of John Llwellyn Moxey (HORROR HOTEL, THE NIGHT STALKER).

Rich old Benjamin Morgan (Brennan) has summoned his daughters home on a dark and stormy Christmas Eve, claiming his second wife Elizabeth (Harris) is slowly poisoning him to death. Elizabeth was once ‘suspected’ of poisoning her first husband (though never proven) and spent some time…

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A Movie A Day #154: The Day They Hanged Kid Curry (1971, directed by Barry Shear)


Welcome to the Old West.  Hannibal Heyes (Pete Duel) and Kid Curry (Ben Murphy) are two of the most wanted outlaws in the country, two cousins who may have robbed trains but who also never shot anyone.  After being promised a pardon if they can stay out of trouble for a year, Heyes and Curry have been living under the names Joshua Smith and Thaddeus Jones.

During a trip to San Francisco to visit his old friend, a con artist named Silky O’Sullivan (Walter Brennan), Heyes is told that Kid Curry is currently on trial in Colorado.  When Heyes goes to the trial, he discovers that the accused (Robert Morse) is an imposter and that the real Kid Curry is watching the trial from the back of the courtroom.  It turns out that the man of trial is just an attention seeker , someone who is so desperate for fame that he is willing to be hanged to get it.  At first, Curry thinks this is a great thing.  After the imposter hangs, everyone will believe that Curry is dead and they’ll stop searching for him.  Heyes, however, disagrees, especially after the imposter starts to implicated Heyes in crimes that he didn’t commit.

Obviously inspired by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Alias Smith and Jones was one of the last of the classic TV westerns.  Though I originally assumed that it was the show’s pilot, The Day They Hanged Kid Curry was actually the first episode of the second season.  With commercials, it ran 90 minutes.  Because of its extended running time, The Day They Hanged Kid Curry was not included in Alias Smith and Jones‘s standard rerun package.  Instead, it was edited to remove the show’s usual opening credits and it was then sold as a motion picture, despite the fact that it is very obviously a television show.

As long as no one is expecting anything more than an extended television episode, The Day They Hanged Kid Curry is okay.  I have never been a big Alias Smith and Jones fan but this episode’s plotline, with Robert Morse confessing to crimes he didn’t commit just so he can have a taste of fame before he dies, feels prescient of today’s culture.  For classic western fans, the main reason to watch will be the chance to see a parade of familiar faces: Slim Pickens, Henry Jones, Paul Fix, and Vaughn Taylor all have roles.  Most important is familiar Western character actor and four-time Oscar winner, Walter Brennan, as Silky O’Sullivan.  This was one of Brennan’s final performance and the wily old veteran never loses his dignity, even when he’s pretending to be Kid Curry’s grandmother.

As for Alias Smith and Jones, it was a modest success until Pete Duel shot himself halfway through the second season.  Rather than retire the character of Hannibal Heyes, the show’s producers replaced Pete Duel with another actor, Roger Davis.  One day after Duel’s suicide, Davis being fitted for costumes.  This move was not popular with the show’s fanbase and Alias Smith and Jones was canceled a year later, though it lived on for years in reruns.

Horror Film Review: The Invisible Man (dir by James Whale)


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The 1933 Universal horror film, The Invisible Man, never seems to get as much attention as Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, or The Mummy.  Perhaps it’s because the invisible man really isn’t a supernatural monster.  He’s just a scientist who has turned himself invisible and is now going mad as a result.  Or maybe it’s because there have been so many crappy films that have used invisibility as a plot point that the reputation of the original Invisible Man suffers by association.

For whatever reason, The Invisible Man never seems to get spoken about in the same breathless, gleeful manner as some of the other Universal monsters.  But I have to admit that, though I usually can’t stand movies about invisibility, I rather like The Invisible Man.

Based on a novel by H.G. Wells, The Invisible Man opens with a mysterious man (played by Claude Rains) arriving in a small English village.  He checks into a small inn and soon, everyone in the village is scared of him.  It’s not just his haughty attitude or his habit of ranting about his own superiority.  There’s also the fact that he is literally covered, from head to toe, in bandages.  He always wears gloves and dark glasses.  He insists that he’s doing important research and demands to be left alone.

The inn keeper (Forrester Harvey) and his histrionic wife (Una O’Connor) put up with the mysterious man until he falls behind on his rent.  However, once confronted, the mysterious man announces that he’s not going anywhere.  When the police and a mob of villagers arrives, the man starts to laugh like a maniac.  He unwraps the bandages around his head and…

THERE’S NOTHING UNDERNEATH!

Well, there is something there.  It’s just that the man is invisible so no one can see what’s underneath.  It turns out that the man is Dr. Jack Griffin, a chemist who has been missing for several days.  He’s created an invisibility serum but he can’t figure out how to reverse the effects.  Even worse, the serum is driving him insane.  Griffin’s fiancée, Flora (Gloria Stuart), and her father, Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers), are searching for Jack but Jack doesn’t particularly want to be found.  Jack is more interested in exploring how he might be able to use invisibility to conquer the world…

The Invisible Man is historically important because it was the film that brought Claude Rains to Hollywood.  Rains has previously made films in the UK but this was his first American film.  Think of how different film history would have turned out if The Invisible Man had, as originally planned, starred Boris Karloff.  Without Claude Rains coming to America, who would have played Louis in Casablanca?  Who would have played Sen. Paine in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington or Alex Sebastian in Notorious?  Of course, we don’t really see Claude Rains’s face until the very end of The Invisible Man.  Instead, we just hear his voice but what a voice Claude had!  He delivers his dialogue with just the right amount of malicious sarcasm.

I like The Invisible Man.  For modern audiences, it’s not particularly scary.  (Though I do find the idea of being unknowingly followed by an invisible person to be a little unnerving…)  However, unlike a lot of other old horror films, you can watch The Invisible Man and see why it would have been scary to an audience seeing it for the very first time.  In 1933, a time when film was still a relatively new medium and audiences had yet to become jaded by special effects, here was a man unwrapping his bandages to reveal that there was nothing underneath!  That had to have freaked people out!

The Invisible Man was directed by James Whale and the film features the same demented sense of humor that distinguished The Bride of Frankenstein.  The villagers are portrayed as being so hysterical that you can’t help but think that maybe Griffin has a point about being surrounded by fools.  By the time the local constable declares, “What’s all this then?,” you can’t help but start to sympathize with Jack Griffin.

There’s been a lot of  bad invisibility movies made but The Invisible Man is not one of them.  It may not be as well remembered as some of the other Universal horrors but it’s definitely one worth seeing.

Horror Film Review: The Bride of Frankenstein (dir by James Whale)


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1935‘s The Bride of Frankenstein is usually described as being a sequel to Frankenstein, but I think it would be better to call it a continuation.  In much the same way that all modern YA adaptations seem to be split into two parts, Universal split Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein into two separate films.  The bare basics of The Bride of Frankenstein‘s plot — the monster learns to talk and demands that his creator build him a mate — can all be found in the original novel.

(Of course, in the original novel, the monster somehow learns how to speaks like an Oxford grad and Dr. Frankenstein destroys the female monster before bringing her to life.  The monster responds by killing Elizabeth.  Seriously, Frankenstein is a dark book.)

Bride of Frankenstein features one of my favorite openings of all time.  Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon) and Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Walton) are praising Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester) and the story that she’s told about how a dedicated scientist played God and created life.  Mary informs them that she’s not finished and then proceeds to tell them the rest of the story.  It’s a great opening because it lets us know that the rest of what we’re seeing is taking place directly inside of Mary’s mind.  It frees the film from the constraints of realism and allows director James Whale to fully indulge his every whim, no matter how bizarre.  When you’re inside someone else’s imagination, anything can happen and that’s certainly the feeling that you get as you watch The Bride of Frankenstein.

The Bride of Frankenstein opens with that burning windmill and a wounded Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) being carried back to his wife, Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson, replacing Mae Clarke).  Gone is the original film’s coda, in which Elizabeth announces that she’s pregnant.  And why shouldn’t it be gone?  It felt awkward in the first movie and, like any good writer, Mary Shelley is fixing her story as she goes along.

While Henry is recovering, he is approached by a former mentor, Dr. Pretorious (Ernest Thesiger).  Dr. Pretorious is undoubtedly an eccentric and definitely a little bit crazy but he believes in Frankenstein’s work.  In fact, Dr. Pretorious has even created life on his own!  He’s created a bunch of tiny people that he keeps in several glass jars.  They’re impressive but, sadly, they’ll never conquer the world.  Pretorious wants Frankenstein to, once again, work with him to create life.  As Pretorious explains it, it’s time to usher in a new age of “God and monsters!”

(Interestingly enough, one of Pretorious’s henchmen is played by Dwight Frye, who previously played Frankenstein’s henchman, Fritz, in the first film.  Frye dies in both films.  Reportedly, Universal bestowed upon him the nickname, “The Man of a Thousand Deaths.”  It can perhaps be argued that Dwight Frye was both the Steve Buscemi and the Giovanni Lombardo Radice of Universal horror.)

Meanwhile, the monster (Boris Karloff, credited with just his last name because, just four years after Frankenstein and the Mummy, he was already an icon) has survived the burning windmill.  He’s lonely, he’s afraid, and he actually kills more people in The Bride of Frankenstein than he did in Frankenstein.  And yet, he’s still the film’s most sympathetic character.  With everyone constantly trying to kill him, you can understand why the monster is quick to attack every human being that he sees.  He’s almost like a dog who, after years of abuse, automatically growls and bears his teeth at anyone that he sees.

And yet, the monster does eventually find a friend.  A blind hermit (O.P. Heggie) invites the monster into his own home.  (Of course, the hermit does not know who the monster is.  He just assumes that monster is a normal man who does not know how to speak.)  As time passes, the hermit teaches the monster how to say a few words and also tells the monster that there is nothing worse than being lonely.  The monster learns that “Friend good.”  The monster even learns how to smoke a cigar and Heggie and Karloff play these roles with such warmth (Bride of Frankenstein is not only the film where the Monster learns to talk, it’s also the one where he learns to smile) that you really start to dread the inevitable scene where everything goes wrong.

And that scene does arrive.  Two hunters stop by the hermit’s shack and immediately attack the Monster.  The Monster flees.  The shack burns down.  The hermit is led away from his only friend, apparently destined to be lonely once again.

Eventually, of course, the Monster does get his bride.  The Bride is such an iconic character that it’s easy to forget that she only appears in the final ten minutes of the film.  Elsa Lanchester plays both Mary and the Bride.  She screams when she sees the Monster.  “We belong dead,” the Monster replies and my heart breaks a little every time.

So, which is better?  Frankenstein or The Bride of Frankenstein?  I don’t think it’s necessary to choose one or the other.  To use a metaphor that might be appreciated by Henry and Dr. Petorious, Frankenstein is the brain while The Bride of Frankenstein is the heart.  They’re two good films that, when watched together, form one great film.

Bravo for RIO BRAVO (Warner Brothers 1959)


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If there’s such a thing as the quintessential “John Wayne Movie”, RIO BRAVO may very well be it. Producer/director Howard Hawks created the perfect blend of action and humor, leading an all-star cast through this tale of a stand-off between the good guys and the bad guys. RIO BRAVO’s theme has been done over many times, most notably by John Carpenter in 1976’s ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. Hawks himself remade the film, with Wayne again starring, as EL DORADO and RIO LOBO, but the original remains the best of the bunch.

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The plot itself is pretty basic. When disgraced deputy Dude (called Borrachon, Spanish for ‘big drunk’) walks into a saloon looking for booze, no-good Joe Burdette tosses a silver dollar into a spittoon for kicks. Sheriff John T. Chance stops Dude from embarrassing himself, only to receive a whack in the head for his efforts. Dude goes after Joe and a fight breaks out, and Joe kills…

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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Sergeant York (dir by Howard Hawks)


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The 1941 film Sergeant York was the American Sniper of its day.  A biopic of Alvin York, one of the most decorated American soldiers of World War I, Sergeant York was not only a huge box office hit but it was a film that celebrated American patriotism in the type of unabashed fashion that you would never see in a film made today.  Though Sergeant York went into production at a time when the United States was officially pursuing a policy of international neutrality, it was released shortly before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and, whether intentionally or not, Sergeant York served as a strong recruiting tool.  According to Wikipedia (and we all know that Wikipedia is never wrong), there were reports of young men going straight from the movie to the nearest military recruitment office.

Clocking in at nearly two and a half hours (and running at least 40 minutes too long), Sergeant York is two films in one.  The second half of the film deals with the military career of Alvin York (Gary Cooper), a plain-spoken and honest Tennessee farmer who, because of his strong religious beliefs, unsuccessfully attempts to register as a conscientious objector.  Forced into the Army, York is, at first, dismissed as a simple-minded hillbilly.  (His fellow soldiers are amused to discover that York doesn’t know what a subway is.)  However, to the shock of his commanding officers, he proves himself to be an expert marksman.  As he explains it, being from the country means that he’s been shooting a rifle his entire life.

On the basis of his skills as a marksman, York is given a promotion but he still says that he refuses to kill.  It’s not until his superior officer reminds him of the sacrifices that past Americans have made that York starts to reconsider his position.  Then, a gust of wind opens York’s bible to a verse about giving unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and York realizes that he can go to war and, if need be, he can kill.

And it’s a good thing that he can!  Because World War I is heating up and York may be the only guy around with the strength and confidence to single-handedly defeat and capture over 170 German soldiers.

The army section of Sergeant York is predictable but well-done.  As you’d expect from a film directed by Howard Hawks, a lot of emphasis is put on how the soldiers work together.  York is portrayed not as being super human but instead as just an honest man who is exceptionally good at his job.  There’s nothing surprising about the second half of Sergeant York but Hawks keeps the action moving and Cooper gives a good performance.

To be honest, I preferred the first half of the film, which examined York’s life before he joined the Army.  When we first meet Alvin York, he drinks too much, he fights too much, and he’s totally irresponsible.  It’s not until he falls in love with Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie) that York starts to change his ways.  The scenes of York in the backwoods of Tennessee had a lively feel to them and it was enjoyable to see Cooper play a somewhat disreputable character.  Cooper seemed to be having fun playing a ne’er-do-well and, in the scenes before York finds God, his bad behavior was a lot of fun to watch.

Considering its success at the box office, it’s not surprising that Sergeant York was nominated for best picture of the year.  While Gary Cooper won the Oscar for best actor, the award for Best Picture went to How Green Was My Valley.