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Category Archives: Westerns

Winchester ’73 (1950) – Anthony Mann directs James Stewart

Winchester 73 Poster (1)After seeing James Stewart in Vertigo, I became interested to see him in some of his other movies, specifically his Westerns, since those were the only movies of his at my small local library that I had not already seen him in. The first one I watched was Winchester ’73, directed by Anthony Mann, the first of five Westerns that the two men made together.

Winchester ’73 is hailed as an important film in the history of Westerns. Anthony Mann brought a new ethos to the Western, with more violence and moral ambiguity to his heroes. I haven’t seen a lot of Westerns, before 1950 or after, so I don’t know if I was fully able to appreciate what Mann did.

The story opens with Lin McAdam (James Stewart) and “High-Spade” Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell) coming to Dodge City in 1876. They are hunting an outlaw who goes under the name Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally) and have been hunting him for years. However, at Dodge City Wyatt Earp (Will Geer) is sheriff and no guns are allowed. When Lin sees Dutch Henry in a bar, both men reflexively draw, but without their guns, it’s just reflex and they can do nothing but exchange glowers at the bar while Earp looks on, telling them they can settle their quarrel after they leave Dodge City.

They do compete against each other in a shooting contest, where the winner receives a “one in a thousand” Winchester rifle (President Grant has the first one made), a gun so perfect that all the men are practically drooling over it. After an extremely close contest that reveals that Lin and Dutch Henry have been taught to shoot by the same man, Lin takes home the prize and accuses Dutch Henry of having shot a man in the back. But Dutch Henry nearly kills Lin in his hotel room and makes off with the rifle, though he leaves town so quickly that neither he nor his men have their other guns or any ammunition. Lin and High-Spade set off after them.

James Stewart and Millard Mitchell look at the "one in a thousand" Winchester Rifle

James Stewart and Millard Mitchell look at the “one in a thousand” Winchester rifle

What follows are a series of vignettes as the rifle is passed from person to person, with the common threads being the rifle and Lin chasing Dutch Henry and always seemingly just beyond the grasp of his own rifle. The gun goes from Dutch Henry to an Indian Trader who is selling guns to a Native American named Young Bull (played improbably by a very young Rock Hudson), who loses it while fighting the US Cavalry, and so on.

Another common thread besides the Winchester and Lin’s hunt for Dutch Henry is the character of Lola Manners (Shelley Winters), a dance hall girl who wants to settle down and is engaged to the cowardly Steve Miller (Charles Drake), though she  likes Lin when she meets him. She gets entangled both with Lin’s story and with the various vignettes involving the Winchester. She is accidentally closer to both the Winchester and Dutch Henry much more than Lin is until the end.

Winchester ’73 is Anthony Mann’s first Western and what is fun about it is that he seems to cover the entire genre in one film. All the cliches are present: revenge, shootouts, Indians attacking the cavalry (the portrayal of Native Americans is not this movie’s strong suit), cheating at cards, holdups, dance hall girls, outlaws. It’s like a summary of the Western.

A big theme is how the Winchester rifle is associated with manhood. Almost all the men seem to equate their manhood with possessing the Winchester rifle and even guns in general. When Dutch Henry and his men leave Dodge City without their guns, his men complain that they feel naked. Practically every man who sees the rifle covets it and are never willing to part with it under any circumstances, killing each other to get it and leaving a trail of bodies in the rifle’s wake. Even Lola’s cowardly fiance, who runs away when they are attacked by Young Bull, is not willing to part with the rifle when the gleefully amoral and murderous outlaw Waco Johnny Dean (marvelously played by Dan Duryea) wants it.

Dan Duryea is not getting the best of James Stewart

Dan Duryea is not getting the best of James Stewart

There are two men who seem to have a different standard of manhood: Wyatt Earp (who keeps the peace in Dodge City and does carry a gun, but only uses it to keep the peace) and Sergeant Wilkes of the US Cavalry (Jay C. Flippen) who is not too proud to admit ignorance or take advice from Lin in defending against Young Bull or to give the Winchester rifle away instead of keeping it for himself. But these two men are the exception, examples of men who do not seem to need to prove anything to anyone and simply do their job.

And of course Lola is not interested in the rifle. She knows how to shoot when she has to and is quite calm under fire, but when her fiance is threatened because he won’t give up the rifle, she urges him to let it go. He does not listen to her, perhaps partly to prove himself in her eyes after he let her down previously.

James Stewart is not actually in the film a huge amount; a lot of time is spent with the Winchester rifle. But Lin is ever present in spirit, single-minded, obsessively focused on catching up with and killing Dutch Henry. He is not so much the hero as the protagonist since he’s not trying to do good so much as exact revenge, a morally dubious aim in life. What really warms his character up is High-Spade, who has ridden with him for years. He asks Lin if he’s thought about what he will do after he’s killed Dutch Henry, concerned that Lin has been hunting him so long that he’s beginning to like it. The warm friendship between them, especially when Lin acknowledges that “he’s rich” in having a friend like High-Spade, goes a long way in keeping Stewart likable.

It’s a great film, not real long (only 92 min.) with a wonderful cast, no dull moments and an interesting take on the West. It a film to see, even if you don’t usually like Westerns.

 
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Posted by on April 13, 2015 in Westerns

 

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Further Thoughts on Destry Rides Again – Marlene Dietrich and Femme Fatales

Marlene Dietrich as Frenchy

Marlene Dietrich as Frenchy

Last year I wrote a post about the movie Destry Rides Again, a comedic Western with James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich. I really enjoyed it, so several days ago I watched it again. It’s an extremely entertaining film that is also thoughtful. There is an underlying theme about how playing the way that your enemy plays opens you up to your enemy’s fate. Those who live by the sword die by the sword; or by the gun. It’s a curious point to make in 1939, when WWII was just getting underway, but perhaps what really stood out about the movie was how civilization wins out over lawlessness and brutality.

Tom Destry, Jr. (James Stewart) is determined to clean up the town of Bottleneck and believes that you can’t do it by using the methods of the enemy. If you do that, suddenly you’ve undermined your own goal. When he does take up arms, that decision has very serious consequences for him.

But what I was also thinking about when I watched it again was the role of saloon singer, Frenchy, played by Marlene Dietrich.

Frenchy is an interesting character. I am used to the idea of the saloon singer who has a heart of gold and that was my expectation of her coming into the movie. However, she’s really more of a femme fatale, who can recognize goodness. At the beginning, she helps her boyfriend and boss, Kent (Brian Donlevy) cheat a man out of his land and evinces no qualms when Kent kills the first sheriff. She rules at the saloon, almost more than Kent; though he is the one driving the quest for land. She seems happy to assist him,though, and rake in the money.

She also knew that Kent and his gang were going to break out their man from prison later in the film and that they would kill anyone who got in their way. She makes sure that Destry is not there, but as a result, the second sheriff is alone and he is killed. The only truly redeeming thing about her character is that she cares for Destry, though ultimately she is able to achieve redemption by dying for him.

Frenchy shows Destry how he can clean up the town while Kent looks on

Frenchy shows Destry how he can clean up the town while Kent looks on

In a contemporary movie, I don’t know if she would have died. There are so many things about her that we admire today. She can not only compete, but win, in a rough and tough man’s world. She is exactly the sort of fun and tough character we love. But in 1930s-’50s movies, the code dictated that people in movies had to pay the price for their crimes. If the film was made today, she would probably not only live, but get the guy. I’m not sure, though, if that would have been more satisfying or not. I have a sneaking feeling that it wouldn’t be.

She also represents our sneaking admiration for a more wild time. We don’t really want to live in a town where the sheriff can be shot and the gambling isn’t honest and the men are spending more time in a saloon than at home, but it’s fun to watch. We like femme fatales, we just don’t want them to win. And that’s the point about Frenchy. She really is a femme fatale, though a sympathetic one. It’s hard to imagine her settling down to civilized life. She belongs to the wild west and when that goes, she has to go, too. She is part of the lawlessness that gets overwhelmed by Destry’s law and order.

I really enjoy this movie. Despite the more serious points, the film is really an excuse to have a lot of fun and the film never allows its more serious points to overwhelm the general tone of the film.

There also some fun songs in the film, sung by Marlene Dietrich and written by Frank Loesser (who wrote the songs for “Guys and Dolls”) and Frederick Hollander (who had to leave Germany in 1933 because he had Jewish ancestors). This video is of Marlene Dietrich singing “Little Joe” from the movie, with movie stills from the film.

“See What the Boys in the Backroom Will Have” is probably the most enduring of the songs from the film. In this video, Marlene Dietrich is entertaining the troops during WWII. A German who emigrated to Hollywood in the early thirties to work, she was a staunch anti-Nazi and entertained troops indefatigably during the war, even going near enemy lines in Germany to perform. She officially became a citizen of America in 1939, the same year that Destry Rides Again came out.

 

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Along Came Jones: Gary Cooper Spoofs Westerns

thYCMIOKBHI have never liked Westerns – at least not the serious kind of Westerns – but I seem to have developed a taste for comedic Westerns. I enjoyed Destry Rides Again and last night I watched and laughed my way through Along Came Jones, which doesn’t take itself seriously for even a moment.

1945 – Starring Gary Cooper, Loretta Young, Dan Duryea, William Demarest  – Directed by Stuart Heisler 

I used to hear that women rarely get good roles in westerns, but the more I watch the more I find exceptions. Loretta Young’s Cherry is by far the most competent person in this film…and seems to be the best shot, too.

Gary Cooper is Melody Jones, an easygoing cowpoke who can’t shoot the broad side of a barn and seems to even have difficulty drawing his gun from his holster.

Jones rides into Payneville with his pal, George (Demarest). His monogram, MJ, is immediately taken to stand for Monte Jarrod, an outlaw who just robbed a stagecoach and stole $40,000. The wanted poster says he’s tall, skinny and rides with somebody named Uncle Roscoe. Jones is tall and skinny and nobody seems to know what Uncle Roscoe looks like, so he and George are met with unexpected fear and respect.

along-came-jones-1-1[1]Jones, at first, thinks it’s his demeanor, but figures it out when several people in the town try to ambush him and he is rescue by Cherry, who walks up and calls him Monte and takes him to her ranch, where she tells him he should probably leave town.

It turns out that Cherry is hiding Monte and wants Jones to lead the posses away. However, Jones has no intention of leaving. He likes Cherry and and he harbors (admittedly briefly) the idea of taking down Jarrod himself.

The story unfolds in hilarious fashion. George is cantankerous and absolutely disgusted with Meldoy, who continues to do everything that Cherry asks him to do and nearly gets himself killed several times and is constantly being hunted by various people and has to be rescued by Cherry. He says that the one thing he likes best is to be rescued from getting shot.

Meanwhile, the real Monte is running around, played by the wonderful and oft villainous Dan Duryea. Monte is growing concerned that Cherry is falling for Melody while Cherry is discovering that Monte isn’t the wild kid she knew as a child, but a rather mean, murderous crook.

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This is one of the few Gary Cooper films I’ve seen so far (I’ve only seen him in one western), but he plays such an appealing character. He may be fairly hapless, but he’s no coward and he’s not quite as dense as Cherry thinks he is. He’s game for most everything and definitely loyal.

Oddly enough, I had never seen Loretta Young in a movie until this year. I’d always heard that she was a devout Catholic and read complaints about how strait-laced she was in film, which affected the kinds of roles she would play. However, I have been hugely impressed with her and thoroughly enjoyed all her films. She may always be a lady (nothing cheap about her) and project grace, but she also always has a quiet, totally not in-your-face competency and good humor that is rare. Morality, in this case, does not equal prim, fainting female in distress.

Notes: Gary Cooper was making fun of his own image. He played his first cowboy in 1929, in The Virginian and would go on to win his second Oscar in High Noon (1952). Cecil B. DeMille did not appreciate the good humor with which Cooper made fun of his own image: silent, folksy, strong, competent, unpretentious. He thought it was a betrayal of Cooper’s image as a hero.

alongcamejones8[1]Cooper was also the producer of this film, which was the only time he ever produced a film. He didn’t like it at all and apparently was somewhat taken aback when told that Young’s costumes would cost $175 each, which he couldn’t understand because they were supposed to be simple clothes and he wanted to buy them for $7 at a store.

Along Came Jones can currently be found on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPBIFjXcI4U

 
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Posted by on May 30, 2014 in Comedy, Westerns

 

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