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Tag Archives: James Stewart

Broken Arrow (1950)

1950 was an important year both for westerns and Jame Stewart. Stewart appeared in Winchester ’73, directed by Anthony Mann, and Broken Arrow, directed by Delmer Daves. Winchester ’73 is generally seen as the first of a series of morally complex westerns made by Mann and Stewart and which inaugurated a decade of such morally complex westerns by others. The importance of Broken Arrow, however, is that it inaugurated an increasingly more nuanced portrayal of American Indians in those westerns.

Broken Arrow plays fast and loose with historical facts, but it is based on (some) real people. Tom Jeffords (a real person, played by Stewart) is prospecting for gold when he comes across an injured Apache boy. There is currently war between the Apaches and the settlers, based in Tucson, but Jeffords stops to nurse the boy back to health. In listening to the the boy talk, he first realizes that Apaches are not so very different as he had thought.

In Tucson, however, the people exist in a state of virtual siege. They cannot even get the mail sent out without it being intercepted and the mail carriers are killed by Cochise, the Apache chief, and his warriors. Jeffords is disgusted with the general tone of hatred and desire to kill, so he sets out on a perilous journey to enter Cochise’s stronghold and talk with the chief, who has not been seen by non-Indians for years.

This meeting between Jeffords and Cochise did actually take place, though the reason for it is unknown. Some say he deliberately went to meet them and others that he was captured and impressed them with his bravery. Either way, Jeffords did meet Cochise and formed a friendship (though not as blood brothers, as in the film). In the film, Jeffords negotiates a deal with Cochise (Jeff Chandler) where the Apaches will allow the mail to go through, though the war is by no means over. He also meets and begins to fall in love with a young Apache woman named Sonseeahray (Debra Paget, a character created for the film).

The rest of the film follows Jeffords attempt, along with General Howard (another actual historical figure, played by Basil Ruysdael) to negotiate a lasting peace with Cochise. There is much resistance, however, from both the settlers and Apaches, to the idea of peace, even after a treaty has been signed.

Jeff Chandler and James Stewart

The film presents a simplified version of the tensions/war between the Apaches and settlers and historically the treaty that was signed did not last long, but the film is still a very interesting one (for a riveting account of the Apache Wars, read David Roberts Once They Moved Like The Wind : Cochise, Geronimo, And The Apache Wars). Although many American Indians were cast as Apaches (Jay Silverheels plays Geronimo), the two leads were played by non-Indians. They do, however, play their roles with a great deal of dignity and no condescension.

But what made the film especially interesting to me was how the script demonstrates how two groups of people could, entirely naturally and even understandably, be in the position of demonizing the other. American settlers were notorious for being unable to even distinguish between different tribes, let alone different individuals within specific tribes. But American Indians could also see the settlers as one entire group without distinguishing between individuals. Broken Arrow is about seeing people as individuals.

(Some Spoilers) My sister observed that the reason Jeffords is able to take a more rational and less emotional approach to the war with the Apaches is because he has not lost anyone. Rancher Ben Slade (Will Geer) lost his wife in an Apache raid and loathes the Apaches. Nearly everyone in Tucson (which is portrayed accurately as a rowdy, lawless town) has lost someone dear in the war. The same is true with Cochise and the Apaches. Each and every one of them has a real reason to hate, hence the killing and the hatred continues.

But when Slade attempts to destroy the treaty by murdering Cochise, he is unable to kill Cochise, but kills Jefford’s wife, Sonseeahray, instead. Now Jeffords is consumed with hatred and wants to see Slade murdered, showing that Jeffords is really no different from anyone else. It is then Cochise who rises to the occasion and tells Jeffords that he must yield his sense of entitlement to revenge and let the law takes it course. Otherwise, the treaty will never have a chance to take hold. In that moment, Cochise emerges as the true hero of the film.

Tragically, the Apache Wars were far from over and many treaties would be broken and many more people would die, ending with the removal of all Apaches from their homeland. But the film is a well-acted and well-made film and thoroughly worth seeing for its humane examination of how and why it is so easy to fall into self-perpetuating hatred.

The film was directed by Delmer Daves, an underrated director who made some excellent westerns, including a personal favorite: The Hanging Tree. His westerns tend to be thoughtful, as well as exciting, and I believe he definitely deserves to be better known as a director of westerns.

Broken Arrow is my contribution to “The Great Western Blogathon,” hosted by Thoughts All Sorts.

 

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Posted by on April 13, 2018 in Movies

 

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Made For Each Other (1939)

downloadI can now be counted as an unabashed fan of Carole Lombard. The first movie I ever saw her in was My Man Godfrey and she was a bit much for me and I stayed away from her films for years. It was my loss, though. The more I see her films, the more brilliant she seems. She combines luminous beauty and depth of feeling with brilliant comic timing and energy.

Made For Each Other is an imperfect movie about the travails of a recently married couple, but allows Carole Lombard to showcase the range of her acting. She plays Jane Mason, the wife of John Mason (James Stewart), who is a lawyer and lives with his mother. The film begins with them just married, crazy in love, and planning to go on their honeymoon to Europe.

But life does not proceed exactly as planned. It’s the depression (the boss wants everyone to take a cut in salary), they live in a small apartment with his querulous and critical mother (Lucile Watson) and John is passed over as a partner by his boss, Judge Doolittle (Charles Coburn). Things become even more strained when they have a child.

Part of the trouble is that John is somewhat meek and disinclined to assert himself, something that Jane takes him to task on (she is definitely the bolder one). She wants him to appreciate his own worth. In some ways, the beginning of the film reminds me of Vivacious Lady, which James Stewart made the previous year with Ginger Rogers and Charles Coburn. In that film, James Stewart is a professor who meets, falls in love with, and marries Rogers all within the space of several hours (just like Made For Each Other), but is too timid to tell his father (Charles Coburn) and generally needs to have his spine stiffened. But Vivacious Lady is purely a comedy. Made For Each Other begins much like a comedy, but veers into melodrama territory by the end. The ending, in particular, is improbable.

But Carole Lombard is a delight as Jane. She absolutely adores John and a large part of the charm of the film is how invested Stewart and Lombard makes the audience in their story, despite its improbabilities. Lombard also demonstrates her excellent comic timing, especially in her interactions with her step-mother, who is never quite satisfied with anything Jane does. Her patience, but also her frustrations, all seemed very believable and it is an interesting look at people trying to get along in a small space. I would have enjoyed more of that and less of the ending race to fly some serum to New York to save their baby from pneumonia.

imagesOkay, apart from the ending, there is one thing I thought was distinctly odd. What is with the string of maids? How are they affording a string of maids (who all give notice for various reasons)? John laments at one point how their marriage is a mistake and how he’s turned Jane into a household drudge because she’s now having to take care of the apartment. My grandmother was married, had five children, took care of the house and frequently worked (at night, so she could be home with the kids). No maid. She never thought of herself as a drudge. She told me people simply did whatever they needed to do. And this was the ’50s, when there was no depression. Hollywood’s idea of how working people lived is certainly curious (my grandmother always gets a laugh whenever she sees a Hollywood “middle-class” family with a housekeeper).

I did find the relationship between Jane and Lily interesting (Lily is their last maid, played by Louise Beavers). In nearly all ways, it is a stereotypical role for Beavers. However, the dynamics stuck out to me. Jane has been looking for work and she and Lily sit down together on the bench and talk. Lily is given dialogue that is stereotyped in the extreme (using watermelons as a metaphor), but the body language and mutual friendship tells a different story. In many films, there can be a tone of condescension used when addressing a black character, but Lombard speaks to Lily just as she would a friend. Even the hug they share when Lily stops by their apartment on New Year’s Eve seems genuine and unforced, like they are really happy to see each other. Oddly enough, Jane’s struggles with poverty has give her common ground with Lily and made them equals in a certain way.

It’s something you see occasionally in depression era films (and WWII films). The sense that the national tragedy or struggle has equalized people to a certain extent. Everyone is fighting the same battle. True unity, the suggestion is, often comes from tragedy and shared struggle. Even the overwrought ending reinforces this. The struggle to save the baby at the end resolves all tensions and troubles, leading to reconciliation and prosperity.

This post is part of “Carole Lombard: The Profane Angel Blogathon.” Reportedly, Stewart and Lombard got on extremely well and Stewart said that Carole Lombard was the only person he knew who could make swearing ladylike. Thanks to In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Phyllis Loves Classic Movies for hosting!

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Posted by on January 18, 2017 in Movies

 

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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

220px-Smith_goesAfter watching Meet John Doe and The Miracle Woman, I was struck by one (of many) themes that Frank Capra seemed repeatedly interested in exploring: whether or not something is still true –  faith, an ideal, a principle – even when it is exploited, ignored or corrupted. I had a dim memory that Frank Capra also explored this theme in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington so I thought it was time I revisited it.

The first time I saw Mr. Smith Goes to Washington I was still in my phase of resisting Frank Capra. On the surface, he seemed simplistic and contradictory. I’ve been rethinking that assessment, however, and warming to his films. And this time I around I was greatly impressed by Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

When a senator from an unnamed state dies, the governor must appoint a temporary senator until the next election. But the governor (Guy Kibbee) and all the politicians are beholden to party boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), a corrupt man who ensures that certain people stay in power, all the while lining his own pockets. The governor chooses Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), the young leader of the Boy Rangers, who they believe will be too ignorant and naive to interfere with Jim Taylor’s little projects in the senate.

Jefferson Smith is awed to be chosen an honorary senator and is especially honored to become the colleague of the revered Senator Joseph Payne (Claude Rains), who used to work with his father fighting for justice for “lost causes.” Jefferson Smith thinks of Payne as a saint, a man who has done well for his state and who looks very likely to make it to the White House. He’s even called the Silver Knight. But Payne, it turns out, is just as beholden to Jim Taylor as all the rest of the politicians of the state.

Jefferson Smith is also assigned a secretary, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), a tough-egg, knowledgeable, smart and cynical, who is initially convinced that Jefferson Smith is just a stooge, until she realizes that he’s actually sincere and no man’s patsy, at least when he realizes what is really going on. He wants to introduce an inoffensive bill to create a national boy’s camp, but it turns out that it conflicts with a bit of pork in an appropriations bill that will benefit Taylor. When Smith discovers this (with Saunder’s help), he refuses to go along with it and sets out to expose them, only to have Taylor and the “saintly” Payne frame him for the exact crime they committed.

Claude Rains and Jimmy Stewart - ironic image

Claude Rains and Jimmy Stewart – iconic image

Thus begins the filibuster to end all filibusters, with Saunders coaching him all the way; one man standing against the party machine. It’s epic.

My first thought was, “What a cast!” Frank Capra always seems to assemble the most marvelous collection of actors. Edward Arnold (in a similar role to Meet John Doe), Eugene Pallette, Porter Hall, Harry Carey, Guy Kibbee, William Demarest, Thomas Mitchell (drunk, as usual). Jimmy Stewart is perfect as the sincere and naive junior senator who, by all rights, ought not to be in politics, but on finding himself in that position, is willing to fight for what is right. He’s a modern-day nearly-martyred saint.

Jean Arthur is also fantastic. I’ve been watching her in some of her comedies, like Easy Living, where she is a bit of a scatter brain, but not in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Her character actually shares a lot of similarities with Barbara Stanwyck’s in Meet John Doe: hard-boiled woman who had to go to work young because her father was so philanthropic and ethical that he couldn’t provide for his own family, yet still retains the values of her father deep inside. Her affection for Jefferson Smith hovers between mothering solicitude and deep admiration.

But for me, it is Claude Rains who really gets the best role. He manages to show both the vestiges of the idealism he felt as a young man and the well-schooled, ambitious politician of today. The admiration Jefferson Smith feels for him and the genuine affection Payne has for Smith as the son of his friend makes his denunciation of Smith one of the more effective betrayals I’ve seen in cinema. You can see the hurt confusion in Smith’s eyes and how Payne hates himself for it. Claude Rains also demonstrates perfectly the dichotomy between the private man and the public one, switching between publicly denouncing Smith without batting an eye to being privately ashamed of himself and almost sick to his stomach.

James Stewart and Jean Arthur

James Stewart and Jean Arthur

The central question Jefferson Smith must ask himself is, “are the American principles he believed in still true, even though he was pilloried and the government is mired in corruption and ambition?” The answer, Saunders urges him, is yes. And it’s worth fighting for. But the irony is that although Jefferson Smith expects the people of his state to rise up and vindicate him, the state party machine is too strong and manages to suppress his defense. He doesn’t exactly convince anyone. All that happens is that the war inside Joe Payne (a la Darth Vader) finally comes to a head and his guilt nearly pushes him over the edge and Payne himself vindicates Smith.

Perhaps the message here is that hope is not necessarily to be found in groups of people or the press or the political system, but simply in the consciences of individual people, which is still alive despite all. The most unexpected people can both disappoint, but also support you. The other message, perhaps, is that right is always worth fighting for, win or lose. Or perhaps it’s a story of rediscovery: Joe Payne, Clarissa Saunders, even Jefferson Smith to a certain degree, must rediscover their ideals that have been buried or obscured by the slings and arrows of fortune.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe would make, I think, an revealing double feature. There are many similarities – the martyred public man who ambitious and corrupt men attempt to use as a tool, then destroy when they refuse to be used, the smart, tough-talking woman who is softened by the man and rediscovers the principles of her youth, the self-doubts, the media wars, the exploitation, the fickleness of people in following their hero, the rapidity in which a hero can fall or rise, the struggle to maintain one’s personal integrity. They are films that reward repeat viewings.

 
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Posted by on February 3, 2016 in Movies

 

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