Jimmy Stewart throws away his dreams to run his dad’s bank while his brother Harry is off being a war hero. Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell of every great movie in 1939) loses a bunch of money, putting the bank at risk of takeover from evil rival Potter (Mark of the Vampire star Lionel Barrymore). Jimmy tries to kill himself but angel Clarence (The Invisible Man scientist Henry Travers) saves him, shows him that Harry and Billy and his wife Mary (Donna Reed of Scandal Sheet) and the guy at the drugstore (HB Warner, DeMille’s Jesus) would’ve all been ruined without him (Potter would be fine). The townspeople contribute to pay Jimmy’s bank’s debts and he’s newly happy to be alive. Good movie while watching, the moment it’s over I always get annoyed by it again.

If anyone’s reading, there is a short-term Situation over here… fewer movies are being watched, and fewer words written about them. Gonna burn through the backlog with some half-assed posts!

Katy says this is considered Jimmy Stewart’s worst movie, which seems farfetched – A Tale of Africa, anyone? Sure it’s no Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but it’s fine. Stewart is scooping salt after dropping off supplies when local drunken bully Dave (Alex Nicol of Bloody Mama and The Screaming Skull) comes by and steals/destroys all his stuff. Stewart gets revenge, of a sort, by hanging out with Dave’s dad’s love-interest/nemesis Aline MacMahon (The Flame and the Arrow) and refusing to leave town, not letting on that he’s tracking some rifles stolen from his late brother. So Jimmy gets tangled up in all the townfolk’s affairs until he figures out who’s trading rifles to the sinister Indians (it’s Dave, of course), almost getting himself killed a bunch of times in the process.

Dusty, enraged Stewart with defeated Dave:

The town is supposedly dominated by a very large ranch plus Aline’s smaller one, though we never see workers at either place except when they ride out in groups to start fights. The rancho grande is run by ailing Donald Crisp (Ulysses Grant in Birth of a Nation forty years earlier) who wishes his son wasn’t such a fuckup, and foreman Arthur Kennedy (who we just saw in The Lusty Men), who’s in on the rifle scheme with Dave. Combo of the gun deal, the vengeful Stewart, and Crisp’s failed power plays all lead to downfall and death, though somehow Crisp is given a happyish ending, engaged to Aline, while Stewart has to ride off but tells his own love interest (Cathy O’Donnell, girlfriend of handless Harold in The Best Years of Our Lives) to look him up if she ever rides east.

Crisp and Kennedy:

Jack Elam (Once Upon a Time in the West) plays a would-be assassin:

A damned good western. I’ve now watched six Anthony Mann films from the 1950’s, and all six have been terrific. Further exploration is needed. Here we’ve got guilty ex-criminal James Stewart leading a group of settlers through increasingly hostile territory. Stewart meets kindred spirit Cole (Rancho Notorious star Arthur Kennedy) and they deal with arrow-shooting natives early on… rest of the hostility comes from white men in a gold rush who’d like to murder the settlers and/or steal their supplies, led by a mutinous Cole.

The group stops in Portland (which looks different these days) to buy supplies, drops off the arrow-wounded Laurie (Julie Adams) to recover. She seemed fond of Cole earlier, and when Stewart returns to Portland months later to find out why their supplies haven’t arrived, she’s shacking up with gambler Rock Hudson. Stewart causes trouble and they have to make a quick escape on a steamboat run by Chubby Johnson and Stepin Fetchit. Eventually Stewart has proven himself again and again, earning the trust of wagon train leader Jay Flippen and the love of his daughter Laurie (Rock barely seems to notice she’s gone, making eyes at her younger sister).

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.

Another tough, superb movie from Anthony Mann, who might be my favorite Mann this year (based on early reviews of Blackhat). We saw some plot threads coming a mile away: the baddie James Stewart has tracked for years is his brother, who killed their father over some greedy business. We’re told during a shooting competition overseen by Wyatt Earp himself (Will Geer, train conductor in The Tall Target) that they’ve got the same training. That day in Dodge, Jimmy wins himself the rare and valuable rifle of the film’s title, and his brother Dutch Henry (Stephen McNally of Criss Cross) immediately steals it and rides off.

America in the 1870’s was populated mainly by horrible drunk murderous gamblers, and we meet a procession of them. Dutch loses the rifle to a trader (John McIntire, sheriff of Psycho) in a card game, who is later (deservedly) murdered for it by Indian chief Rock Hudson – yes! Jimmy teams up with Millard Mitchell (ol’ prospector of The Naked Spur), later kills Chief Rock during an Indian battle vs. the cavalry led by Jay Flippen (who played an Indian himself in Run of the Arrow). The rifle is handed off to the shitty Steve (Charles Drake of All That Heaven Allows) to protect his fiancee Shelley Winters (not recognizable from The Tenant). Steve lasts all of one more scene, seeking refuge at the same house where criminal Waco Johnny (Dan Duryea, the Scarlet Street pimp) decides to have a police shootout with his men. Waco kills Steve, takes the rifle and the girl to his planned meeting with Dutch Henry (Jimmy Stewart’s evil brother, remember?). Jockeying to outdo each other in the bad guy department, Waco and Dutch hit a bank, followed closely by Jimmy Stewart, who kills Waco then chases Dutch into the mountains, finally killing him too, earning himself back the rifle and probably the girl.

I guess Tony Curtis played one of Dutch’s men, not that we noticed. Wikipedia claims it was supposed to be a Fritz Lang project with a different story, Stewart more obsessed with the rifle.

Great, tense western thriller with just a few (white) characters and an unusual philosophical ending. “He’s not dead if you take him back. He’ll never be dead for you.” Shot by William Mellor (Giant) in academy-ratio color. I noticed some cool secret-revealing camera moves – from a quick one during the opening titles to a slow traveling shot later on showing a guy hiding behind a rock. Overall great performances except that I wished Jesse Tate had been played by Rio Bravo‘s Walter Brennan – Millard’s voice wasn’t quite right.


Jimmy Stewart (the year before Rear Window) comes at friendly ol’ prospector Jesse (Millard Mitchell of Thieves’ Highway and Winchester ’73), says he’s looking for lawman-slayer Robert Ryan. Jesse hasn’t seen Ryan since Clash By Night, so offers his assistance. In wanders Kiss Me Deadly star Ralph Meeker as a disgraced ex-soldier, and between them, the men take down Robert Ryan over the protest of his gal Janet Leigh (four years after Holiday Affair).

Everyone but Jimmy:

But Ryan pretty easily turns the men against each other by revealing that he’s got quite a bounty on his head, and Stewart is after him for the money, not as a lawman. This works better than Janet Leigh’s appeals that poor Ryan is innocent – and if we’d ever considered believing her, Ryan loses all sympathy when he wears down the men to the point that he’s allowed to escape, then he shoots ol’ Jesse. Meeker goes down next, but takes Ryan with him, and Stewart recovers the body. But apparently Janet Leigh can make a man fall in love with her pretty much instantly, so…

B. Lucas:

Howard drags Ben’s body to his horse in a final paroxysm of fury, but then turns to Lina and sees in her face the light of unconditional love and a new beginning, and at last relents. The tears and cracking voice of Stewart in close shot are a high moment of this great actor’s career, perfectly complemented by the softer yet no less vibrant playing of Leigh. . . As the camera moves up into the sky, then follows a dissolve to come back to the two characters moving through dead trees within an open expanse, one sees in these images that there is a spiritual rhythm within life, and that “choosing a way to live” can happen even in the roughest passage.

Another look at the face that turned Jimmy’s life around:

Bonus: lots of Indian-slaying and horse-injuring action when Meeker declares war on a passing tribe, and some Jimmy Stewart backstory, narrated to Leigh while he’s injured and raving. Jimmy uses his spur to help climb a cliff at the end (then throws it in Robert Ryan’s face), which I guess is where the weird title came from.

Somehow this is the fifth Wellman movie on the blog, even though I can never recall who he is or which films he directed, also getting him confused with William Wyler. I am remembering this movie as being somewhat Capraesque, but now maybe I’m getting mixed up with Here Comes The Groom, which we saw the same week. Anyway.

Jimmy Stewart (immediately after It’s a Wonderful Life) is an obsessed pollster who hits upon the statistically perfect town, which when polled on any question comes up with the same answers as the country as a whole. So he heads down there to conduct a covert polling operation, and bumps into Jane Wyman, who is trying to modernize and improve the town. Jimmy can’t have her mucking up his system, so he sets out to sabotage her, until his cover is blown and the town becomes overrun with media trying to interview every resident on every topic. And of course Jimmy and Jane fall for each other, but Katy says they lacked chemistry.

Two classic character actors played Stewart’s sidekicks – Donald Meek (timid balding fellow from You Can’t Take It With You and Stagecoach) and Ned Sparks, the prototype sour-faced cynical braying cigar chomper. At first I thought he was doing a poor William Demarest impression, but Sparks had gotten famous with this persona at the advent of sound film. Both he and Donald Meek coincidentally died immediately after filming – this was their last movie. Less successful as a character actor was Jimmy’s friend Hooperdecker, his inside man who helps set him up in town – played by Kent Smith of both Cat People movies. A hunky leading-man type crammed into a schoolteacher’s cheap suit, Katy remarked that he looked like Clark Kent.

Jimmy Stewart was maybe darker than he needed to be, a secretive war veteran who doesn’t work well with others, acting as puppetmaster of this small town. Wyman was looking young, four years before Here Comes The Groom, and got to play a surprisingly empowered (for a 40’s rom-com) newspaper publisher with political connections. The main thing that smelled funny to me was how perfect this small town was – an ideal, all-white, upper-middle-class society. That’s not a problem for a Hollywood movie in general, but this town isn’t “magic” because it’s ideal, but because it perfectly represents the greater United States, so should have its share of all classes and professions.

Another entry for…

Initiated by Shadowplay

There’s classic Jimmy Stewart (The Philadelphia Story, Shop Around the Corner and those Capra flicks), mid-life Hitchcock/Preminger Jimmy Stewart, and the ripe-for-retirement late Jimmy Stewart of Airport ’77 and The Magic of Lassie. But this film stands alone in featuring a post-retirement Jimmy Stewart.

IMDB trivia page says:

James Stewart said that he and his wife were vacationing at a game preserve in Kenya when they came across the filmmakers shooting this picture. He said he was persuaded to make a short appearance, speaking a few lines, because he thought it would help to promote wildlife conservation. “Never did understand what it [the film] was all about”, he said. “I did it on a whim.”

Jimmy Stewart feeds a hawk

And he does only speak a few lines, but that makes him a pretty major character in a movie where nobody speaks more than a few lines. Early on, the filmmakers announce their intention to feature a narrative, introducing a man (Philip Sayer of a couple British miniseries, who managed to die eight years before Stewart) in search of help after his plane crashes in the desert, but then they let us watch a girl named Maya romp with wild animals for another thirty minutes before anything else happens. Worryingly, the slender story wasn’t improvised by some actors who stumbled into a wildlife shoot, as it seems to have been, but was rather written by Hana’s old collaborator, legendary avant-garde filmmaker Terayama Shuji (Grass Labyrinth, Emperor Tomato Ketchup). Also worryingly, the “special effect” used to show Sayer’s plane crashing into a tree seemed to have been achieved by actually crashing a plane into a tree. It’s hard to tell if the dialogue was improvised, or if it was written for children, or if everything got simplified because of language barriers: a Japanese crew in Kenya with American, British and Italian lead actors, plus “Kathy” as Maya, no idea where she’s from.

(to be read flatly with a vague smile, revealing no emotion)
“Grandfather, the zebras and the gazelles are having babies again.”
“Ah, that means you’ll have a lot more friends now.”
“Yes, I have so many animal friends now, and I’ve got you, grandfather.”

But enough about story and dialogue. The filmmakers don’t care about it, so why should we? If you remove your expectations of “a Jimmy Stewart movie” or even “a decent film that makes a lick of sense,” it has its own pleasures. Stewart and his granddaughter Maya live in a thatched house with no doors or windows (a rhino wanders inside at one point) and spend their days playing with the wildlife and caring for their adopted pets, including a monkey and a grey thing I don’t even know what to call (they named it Tiki), which makes a “sknt!” noise that cannot be real. These two pets are treated as major characters. We get a better sense of Tiki’s personality than Jimmy Stewart’s (notice I don’t use his character name – I’m not sure that he has one). And I could think of worse ways to spend two hours than watching the beautiful Maya prance about, intercut with wonderfully shot Kenyan nature footage.

Tiki and his monkey friend:

But if Maya’s playful solo scenes recall the early Pocahontas scenes in Malick’s The New World (unfortunately set to what sounded like electro-symphonic versions of Abba songs), the effect is lost when she opens her mouth. It’s very possibly the directors’ fault (you never know), but she and Sayer and his fiancee Eleonora Vallone sure come out looking like lousy actors. Stewart, however, gets showcase scenes for his acting skills – a couple of raging anger moments, and a climactic emotional story told to Sayer about the accidental death of his son, Maya’s father, in a mine explosion. He also really comes to life, with a warm glow in his eyes revealing the depths of his love for nature, during a short speech about dung beetles. Since Stewart isn’t in the movie long enough to get to know him, these scenes don’t mesh well with his other personas in the film (benevolent nature-loving grandfather/mean old curmudgeon), lending credence to Stewart’s claim that he never understood the plot.

An actor, acting:

Oh yeah, the plot. So, since Sayer has amnesia after his plane crash, there’s nowhere he needs to be, so decides to stay with the hot (but chaste in a children’s-movie way) Maya, gaining the family’s trust by braving a snake-cutaway to rescue some cute creature from a hole it had fallen into, and comforting Maya after Jimmy Stewart’s easily-predicted death (actually I thought it was just as likely he’d wander off set and return to his vacation as stay long enough to shoot the death scene). Then, over an hour into the movie it switches to unsubtitled Japanese and I’m lost for a while. Lions behead some gazelles, tens of wildebeest and zebras drown on-camera in a horrible flood (making me pray it was not a children’s movie), some guy is killing “koala birds” with explosives, and there is a montage of animals yawning. Then rich fancy-girl Erika, the fiancee of the crash victim, sets out in her own plane to find him. Sayer somehow gets caught in a brush fire and a native (the movie calls them “the nomads”) walks him out safely. Erika catches up with the young couple and shoots Sayer with a dart gun in frustration when he won’t join her, then pisses off, leaving him in peace with Maya.

Erika at left, with the worst jumpsuit/upholstery combination in human history:

The movie doesn’t have a wildly good reputation online. J. Sharp:

With this overly precious would-be epic the director seems to be so cowed by his subject, the raw beauty of the Kenyan savannah and its denizens, that the end result resembles little more than a protracted holiday slide-show display. … It seems strange that Hani seems so content to dwell on such superficial trimmings, not only given his impressive track record in the 60s, but also that he’d previously been in Kenya to film The Song of Bwana Toshi shortly after the country had achieved independence from Britain. Bwana Toshi had dealt with the cross-cultural encounters of a Japanese geological engineer with the local community in which he is sent to work, and at least addressed such issues as expatriate-local relationships and the misunderstandings that arise due to the cross-purposes of the parties involved. In Africa Story there’s barely a black face in sight.

This was last fiction film to date by Susumu Hani, a Japanese New Wave director of the 50’s and 60’s. Co-director Simon Trevor specializes in camerawork for films shot in Africa – he worked on Gorillas in the Mist, White Hunter Black Heart and Out of Africa.

Midnight Eye has the scoop:

Susumu Hani’s career began with documentaries about youth and shifted into pseudo-documentary dramas, climaxing with Nanami, one of the greatest masterpieces of Japanese film. Although his work proves he had a profound understanding of human psychology, Hani was becoming increasingly disillusioned with humanity, which may explain why he abandoned human subjects in favor of making nature documentaries for NHK. It’s best to keep that in mind while watching this film, because at this late stage in his career, Hani seems to be completely uninterested in human drama. Instead of focusing on developing the characters, Hani chooses to simply incorporate more nature footage than the story will allow.

The vertical lines were supposed to be slimming:

Second in the series, with Van Dyke returning. Whereas the first one had Brenon & Borzage cinematographer James Wong Howe, the sequel has Lubitsch & Wellman cinematographer Oliver Marsh. I am guessing nobody noticed. Only Jimmy Stewart’s second year in the movies. He obviously didn’t have his Capra persona down yet if he’s playing a murderer. Oh yeah, Jimmy Stewart is the murderer – that’s the twist ending in this one! If he’d have been played by anyone else, I might’ve seen it coming.

Wait, getting ahead of myself… so Nick and Nora are in the movie from the beginning this time, which is nice. They’re going to visit her rich family, who disapprove of her drunken detective husband. The movie reeeally plays up what a drunk he is this time. It’s intended for comic effect, but gets increasingly disturbing. There will have to be an intervention by movie four… if those had been invented yet. Nick is still retired but gets convinced to do one more job, Nora once again wants to get involved in the detective work but “ohhh no you don’t,” Nick won’t let her. It’d be tired and repetitive if it wasn’t so light and charming. One bit of weirdness that didn’t work for me: their dog Asta gets his own solo scenes. He visits “Lady Asta” from behind a fence and chases another dog who has been visiting her, and apparently getting her pregnant. The dog scenes correlate nicely with all the other couple-infidelity in the human world of the film, but there’s no real resolution to these scenes, and they kinda made me sad for Asta.

Just as many characters as in the first one (and again, they’re all invited to a dinner party in order to determine guilt). I quote an IMDB review: “My favorite is Aunt Katherine, the battle ax to end all battles axes, played by Jessie Ralph (The Bank Dick); and Henry, the rickety old butler played by, would you believe, Tom Ricketts.” Nora’s cousin Selma (Elissa Landi, Count of Monte Cristo) is upset when her lying, cheating husband (Alan Marshal of Hunchback of Notre Dame, House on Haunted Hill) goes missing, then even more upset when he’s found and says he’s leaving her for showgirl Polly (Penny Singleton: Blondie Bumstead and the voice of Jane Jetson). Also involved: club owner Joseph Calleia (Touch of Evil), an asian thug who seems to be a hat-throwing prototype for Oddjob, Selma’s psychiatrist (George Zucco of The Pirate, House of Frankenstein) and a cop (Sam Levene of The Killers, Brute Force, a cop-assisting beardy cultist in God Told Me To).

Cute movie with no apparent quality drop from part one (except for the overdone dog scenes). Judging from the booties-knitting ending, there will be babies in part three.