Barbara Stanwyck is great as ever, and maybe the movie itself isn’t great, but it’s something we didn’t think ever existed. You hear that the 1930’s pre-codes were edgy, and you see Mae West‘s bawdy humor, but you never expect to see Barbara – pushed by a Nietzsche-quoting crank – to screw her way up the ladder of a bank, finally getting the president to marry her and inspiring two suicides along the way.

Barbara has mixed feelings watching her dad burn up:

Predicting another of her movies, eight years early:

Barbara’s dad Robert Barrat is a crabby bartender, pimping out his daughter until his stillhouse explodes with him inside, so Lily (heh) moves to the city with her buddy Theresa Harris (of Thunderbolt and I Walked With a Zombie) in tow. She doesn’t actually advance her career, because women in banks were secretaries, but she starts as secretary to lowly John Wayne in the filing department and quickly becomes secretary to men higher up the organization. There’s leering Mr. Brody, then the upright guy who tries to get her fired Mr. Stevens (Donald Cook), then his crazy-haired boss Carter aka Fuzzy Wuzzy (Henry Kolker, Katharine Hepburn’s dad in Holiday), and finally the fancy young president (George Brent), who she sideways-seduces by pretending to be reformed and uncorruptable. In the end she either finds her president-husband dead in his office, or she’s so happy he’s still alive that she renounces her riches – your choice.

Barbara ignoring John Wayne:

Cozying up to Brody (Douglass Dumbrille of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town):

With wild scarf, sleeves, and Donald Cook:

A not-too-exciting Marlene Dietrich/John Wayne western. Boring ol’ Randolph Scott (Roberta, Ride Lonesome) rides into town claiming to represent the law of the country but really planning to steal land from local miners. John Wayne is seduced by Scott’s uneasy companion Margaret Lindsay (Jezebel, Fog Over Frisco) until he catches onto their scheme. Dietrich is wise from the beginning. She and third-wheel Richard Barthelmess (that guy from Only Angels Have Wings who looks like a cross between Buster Keaton and Peter Lorre) help Wayne foil the plan, and the mines are saved, yay.

But most notably: John Wayne in blackface!

All I knew about this movie was the theme song, as memorably covered on a Henry Kaiser album. So I am well aware that the man who shot Liberty Valance (he shot… Liberty Valance), he was the bravest of them all. But who is this man? As the movie opens, a big-time politician (slow-talking Jimmy Stewart in old-age makeup) arrives in a one-horse town to grieve a dead cowboy (John Wayne, spared the makeup), and once the flashbacks begin one wonders if Wayne is too obvious a candidate to shoot Liberty Valance, and perhaps it’ll be Stewart. Then it pulls out a twist ending – Stewart thought he shot Liberty but missed, while Wayne shot Liberty dead from another angle and let Stewart take the credit. Stewart’s a pacifist law-and-order kind of guy, on his way to the capital to tame the wild west through government, the downfall of Wayne’s way of life, and Stewart takes Wayne’s girl Vera Miles with him.

We just rewatched The Lady Eve, and it occurred to me that Liberty Valance is like a Preston Sturges movie in a couple of ways. All the character names are colorful (Ransom, Liberty, Pompey, Link Appleyard, Dutton Peabody, Major Cassius Starbuckle), and so are all the actors playing them. No boring, blank-faced white guys injected for plot purposes, instead everyone adds to the movie’s personality. Vera Miles comes closest to being a default movie character, without much life of her own, but then the emotional finale unexpectedly belongs to her, as she wonders if she married the wrong man. Stewart and Wayne are allowed to act very much themselves, Stewart with his stuttering vowel elongation, Wayne acting cool and calling him pilgrim. Then you’ve got Lee Marvin as Valance, Andy “Friar Tuck” Devine as the coward sheriff, John Carradine as a pompous politician – even the great Lee Van Cleef as a henchman. It’s all more tortured and serious than Rio Bravo, but similarly a great movie to hang out with.

Jean Arthur in her fourth-to-last movie. Her gentle, distinctively high voice floats above the constant hiss of background noise, barely audible but still clear as day.

She flees her three obnoxious suitors: pathetic, proper Grady Sutton (baddie of The Sun Shines Bright), unmemorable middleman Hans Conried and crude, punchy Grant Withers (a Clanton clansman in My Darling Clementine) for a Western bus tour, then loses the bus, ending up with handsome rodeo cowboy John Wayne (four years after Stagecoach but still not above crap like this).

Also, Charles Winninger, Judge Priest himself in The Sun Shines Bright (IMDB calls him “ever-huggable”) does his best Stumpy impression as Duke’s buddy Waco.

Seiter, eight years and 25 movies after Roberta, cranking ’em out too fast. Story writer Jo Swerling was oscar-nominated the previous year, would later cowrite Guys & Dolls on broadway. Produced by Jean Arthur’s husband, who cowrote her The More The Merrier the same year.

My favorite sentence from the TCM synopsis: “Joining Mollie in the hay, Duke warns her that he isn’t marriage material and speaks fondly of his horse, Sammy.”

Another rockin’ John Wayne/Walter Brennan movie, although this one seems more Westerny than Rio Bravo, what with the cattle drives and Indian attacks. Wayne is a Texas rancher who builds a cattle empire after losing his sweetie to Indians while crossing the Red River years earlier. Now he and his young protege Monty Clift (his first year in Hollywood, five years before From Here To Eternity) take a long, difficult drive north since cattle prices have crashed down south, hoping they’ll hit a railroad town before they hit bandits or Indians. The men mutiny when Wayne becomes a slavemaster, Clift takes over, and there’s a pretty badass showdown between the two at the end, culminating in a happy reconciliation.

Harry Carey Jr. (in one of his first movies) makes the mistake of talking about his lovely wife waiting at home, so he gets killed in a stampede brought on by some idiot who steals sugar from chef Brennan – the movie’s way of saying that life is meaningless. Harry Carey Sr. (in one of his last movies) plays the happy-ending cattle buyer at their destination town. And John Ireland (the coward Robert Ford in I Shot Jesse James) is set up as Clift’s big rival, then his plot thread fizzles out. IMDB says Hawks wanted Cary Grant for the part – I guess Ireland wasn’t an exciting enough player to justify adding another twenty minutes to the film. Remade in the 80’s with James Arness, Ray Walston and LQ Jones.

As usual after we watch a Hawks movie, Katy and I shared an uneasy conversation about auteurism. She accused me of being a Hawksian auteurist, but I still can’t tell a Hawks movie from, say, a Billy Wilder or William Wellman movie. I just tend to like them is all.

I shouldn’t have to look up web articles about this movie since I have the BFI Film Classics book, but it turned out to be way boring. Senses of Cinema talks up Wayne’s oedipal relationship with Clift, then Intl. Cinema Review compares Clift’s and Ireland’s competitive gunfight to an orgasm, so apparently the movie was all about sex and Katy and I didn’t realize.

Still not so sure I understand the auteur-stamp of Howard Hawks (some characteristics of which were discussed after watching His Girl Friday). But gosh does he make entertaining movies. Both of these built up tension and excitement, then came up with improbably happy endings for our heroes.

To Have and Have Not (1944)

A few years after His Girl Friday, same year as Wilder’s Double Indemnity. Novel by Hemingway, adapted by Faulkner – that’s some writing credentials. Bogart, so soon after Casablanca, is again trying to stay coolly neutral in a tense city occupied by wartime Vichy France (Martinique this time), falling for a girl who’s trying to skip town. This time the girl is smoky, deep-voiced Lauren Bacall (her first movie) and Bogie’s drunk friend and partner in his fishing boat business is triple oscar-winner Walter Brennan of Lang’s Fury & Hangmen Also Die. Clearly a great character actor, Brennan spiced up both movies considerably.

Bogie has been taking an obnoxious customer out fishing all week, catches Lauren picking the guy’s pocket before Bogie has been paid, but all is forgiven when guy catches a stray bullet during a police raid at their favorite hangout bar (a secret meeting place for the anti-Vichy free French underground). Now broke with no customer, Bogie takes a job ferrying a French couple in his boat, then helping the guy when he gets his stupid self shot. Suspecting Bogie’s involvement, the nazi collaborators hold Eddie (that’s Walter Brennan) hostage and refuse him alcohol until Bogie gives up the hostages. This is the point when I decided the movie is not trying to be grimly realistic. I hadn’t felt any sense of danger or suspense so far, not even when the boat was shot at, and now this kidnapping has hardly begun when Bogie shoots a guy through his desk, turns the tables on the baddies and escapes with the girl. He’s sort of an untouchable superhero version of his Casablanca character, and he’s got a sexier, younger and more independent woman.


Bacall sings with Hoagy Carmichael in the “Sam” role. Hoagy wrote “Georgia On My Mind” (for real, not in this movie).

Frenchy – the clockwork-loving party host of Rules of the Game – works the hotel bar and helps protect and organize the resistance.

Johnson, Bogie’s customer, is rear-projection fishing. Looks like fun – and it’s six decades before the Nintendo Wii was invented.

Walter Brennan manages to be a funny drunk without being a typical W.C. Fields-ish classic Hollywood drunk. In fact, he’s the most believable guy in the movie.

Rio Bravo (1959)

I guess I’m spoiled, since the only westerns I’ve watched in five years are this one, The Searchers, and those Budd B. pics from last week – none of the standard-quality workman stuff which everyone watching this in ’59 would’ve seen, nor the 50’s hits this was supposedly reacting against (3:10 to Yuma and High Noon). The Searchers had a darker edge to it, while this one has a giddy, explosive shootout ending in which the heroes are hardly in any danger, just a buncha bonkers western fun. Wasn’t expecting that.

One of the last films by Hawks, less prolific in his old age. Six years after Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, same year as The Crimson Kimono, North By Northwest and Ride Lonesome. Apparently his beef with High Noon was that the sheriff runs around town asking everybody for help. Hawks and Wayne thought that wasn’t right, and wrote themselves a less wussy lawman, someone who’ll take on a hundred men if he has to, and won’t even accept help from most people, let alone ask for it.

I liked this movie even better than the other. Wayne, wearing a series of colorful shirts, arrests the brother of a real badass for killing a guy in a drunken brawl, with the help of disgraced, drunken former deputy Dean Martin (best acting I’ve ever seen from him). A few years after Artists & Models, Dean had blown off Jerry Lewis and gone serious – but Ocean’s Eleven was just a year away, probably put a small dent in his perceived seriousness. Ol’ Walter Brennan from the other movie is a wacky deputy who minds the jail. Walter’s the life of the party, as usual.

Dean checks out Walter’s John Wayne impression:

Now Joe’s in jail and every bad dude in town is angry about it. The stage rolls into town carrying Wayne’s old buddy Ward Bond (a John Ford regular), hot chick Angie Dickinson (China Gate, Point Blank, elevator victim in Dressed To Kill) and quickdraw Ricky Nelson (teen idol and TV star). Ward offers to help, Wayne turns him down but a few hours later Ward is shot anyway.

The late Ward, and Wayne who has a colorful shirt for every occasion:

Ricky and Angie:

Eventully badass Burdette (John Russell of The Sun Shines Bright) shows up to help his brother (Claude Akins of The Killers, Merrill’s Marauders). Plans to raid the jail are derailed when they hear Walter will happily blow away the brother if anyone tries anything.

L-R: Walter, a jailed brother, a badass

Action! Dean is kidnapped, Helpful hotel owner Carlos and his wife are kidnapped, shootouts on the street and in the hotel, Walter Brennan gets to use that shotgun, Ricky and Dean each sing us a song, movie ends with a suspenseless comic scene, our heroes all tossing dynamite at the building where Burdette has holed up, shooting and laughing – not the kind of grim, fateful finale you usually get in a violent western. So right, I don’t know what kind of Hawksian analysis the critics apply to scientifically prove this film’s greatness, but I sure thought it was a tootin’ good time.

So I’ve finally watched The Searchers. For a couple years I’d heard that it was one of The Greatest Films so wanted to see it badly, but then I changed my mind and decided I probably wouldn’t like it because of John Wayne, then I stewed on that for a few years until finally it sat as maybe the movie I’d been meaning to see longer than any other.

All those expectations, and I end up liking it. Worst of all, I thought John Wayne was good, damn it all.

IMDB plot summary: “Ethan Edwards, returned from the Civil War to the Texas ranch of his brother, hopes to find a home with his family and to be near the woman he obviously but secretly loves. But a Comanche raid destroys these plans, and Ethan sets out, along with his 1/8 Indian nephew Martin, on a years-long journey to find the niece kidnapped by the Indians under Chief Scar. But as the quest goes on, Martin begins to realize that his uncle’s hatred for the Indians is beginning to spill over onto his now-assimilated niece. Martin becomes uncertain whether Ethan plans to rescue Debbie…or kill her.”

Jeffrey Hunter (Jesus in King of Kings) is Wayne’s sidekick nephew and Vera Miles (psycho, the wrong man) is the nephew’s love interest. Natalie Wood and her young sister Lana play the kidnapped Debbie. John Wayne’s iconic performance in The Searchers came the same year as one of his most hated roles ever, as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror.

Very meaningful opening shot:

Horses are neat:

Hunter tries to temper Wayne’s anti-Indian rage:

Indians are neat:

Very meaningful closing shot:

So what’s the new “movie I’ve been planning to see longer than any other”?
Sunset Blvd? Weekend? Nashville? Something I started and never finished like Crumb or Night On Earth? DVDs I bought ages ago like Benjamin Smoke and Henry V? I’m gonna go with Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes.