"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Monday, May 25, 2020

Brigham Young: Frontiersman (Fox, 1940)

A premake of The Ten Commandments

At the end of the 1930s big A-picture Westerns came back into fashion and Fox’s contribution was to put its major star Tyrone Power, who wasn’t accustomed to wearing a Stetson, in its Technicolor blockbuster Jesse James (1939), directed by big name Henry King, with Henry Fonda as brother Frank and Randolph Scott as a sympathetic lawman. It was a huge box-office hit. In 1940 the studio followed up with the Fritz Lang-directed The Return of Frank James, with Fonda again, but of course Tyrone couldn’t be in that, having been shot in the back by Bob Ford the year before (though he did a rehearsal of that bit as a cameo in the first reel of Return). So the big boss Darryl Zanuck decided to use glitzy star Power in another Western, alongside their female lead Linda Darnell, and he put together a biopic of Mormon leader Brigham Young.
Bromfield got the credit

It was to star Dean Jagger as Young. I am a big Jagger fan as far as Westerns go (in fact he was a fine actor all round), and I think he was outstanding in oaters such as Western Union (1941), Pursued (1947), Rawhide (1951) and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), among many others. But those pictures were still in the future, and in 1940 Jagger was hardly a megastar. Zanuck thought the movie needed a more stellar line-up, and so cast Power and Darnell, in dramatically but not commercially lesser roles, to pep it up at the box-office. It worked. So much so that Zanuck paired Power and Darnell again later the same year to do a big Zorro picture.

Henry Hathaway (left) was to direct. Hathaway was by this time one of the biggest Hollywood names there was, rivaling John Ford, William A Wellman and Howard Hawks, and like them he was famously tyrannical on the set. One crew member said later that Hathaway was a little dictator. Everyone had to be very careful about everything to avoid his wrath. Working with him was “like having a rattlesnake in one's pocket”. Darnell said later that it was a far from happy set, and she felt ostracized by Hathaway and Power. Hathaway had cut his directorial teeth on Westerns, at Paramount in the early 30s, helming one-hour talkie versions of the Zane Grey tales the studio had bought the rights to, such as Heritage of the Desert, To the Last Man, The Thundering Herd and Man of the Forest. In 1936 he had done a bigger picture, with Fred MacMurray and Henry Fonda, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, though that was a semi-Western rather than a full-blown sagebrush saga. Other almost-Westerns followed, pictures like The Shepherd of the Hills and Ten Gentlemen from West Point, before he achieved real Western fame directing excellent oaters such as Rawhide (with Power again), Garden of Evil with Gary Cooper, From Hell to Texas with Don Murray, and several with John Wayne, most notably the great True Grit in 1969.

Curiously, in some ways, Brigham Young was shot in black & white. For such an expensive picture – it was budgeted at a then huge $2.5m – one might have expected it to be in Technicolor, as Jesse James and The Return of Frank James were. But in fact the picture was shot so artistically that the black & white because a plus point. The DP was Arthur C Miller, a master of monochrome, who won three Oscars and was nominated for no fewer than four other pictures. In the key of Western he photographed The Ox-Bow Incident and The Gunfighter, both in black & white and both superb pictures. Brigham Young contains some breathtaking shots, and while the film definitely has its weaknesses, as a visual spectacle it is truly remarkable, and worth seeing for this alone.

Miller a great talent

No expense was spared on the locations, the trek scenes being shot at Kanab, Utah, the cricket-infestations in Elko, Nevada (with quite brilliant filming) and Big Bear Lake, Mount Whitney and Lone Pine locations used for various other scenes.

Very impressive

There is quite a history of Hollywood movies featuring Mormons. It dates back at least to filmings of Zane Grey’s anti-Mormon novel Riders of the Purple Sage, though some versions, such as the Tom Mix silent of 1925, cut out any mention of the religion, presumably to avoid upsetting anyone (and perhaps to sell more tickets in Salt Lake theaters). Brigham Young, though, was a very pro-Mormon picture, almost hagiography, to be honest, and the Saints are all-American lovers of liberty who are only exercising their constitutional rights. They are persecuted by bigoted bullies. Most of the cast were not Mormon (though the doctor was played by Moroni Olsen, which might give a clue). Jagger in fact became a Mormon years later. The writers were Louis Bromfield and Lamar Trotti, though Bromfield got far more credit. It was Bromfield's only Western. Trotti would work for Wellman on Ox-Bow and Yellow Sky, and for Ford on Drums Along the Mohawk, so he knew a thing or two.

Writers Bromfield and Trotti

They had a slight problem with the plot, though. Driven out of Illinois by vicious thugs, Young leads his people to the safety of Mexican territory. Before getting to the Great Salt Lake, though (then part of Mexico), a faction doesn’t want to settle in that desert land but wants to go on to California because gold has been discovered there. OK, neat plot device. The only snag is that the Mormons arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847 (a date now recognized as Pioneer Day in Utah) while gold wasn’t found in California until January 1848 and news of it didn’t circulate widely until the summer of ’48. Oh well.

Amusingly, Jane Darwell, who had played Tyrone’s mother in Jesse James, was again his ma here. He probably ended up calling her Mom. Darwell would again join a Mormon wagon train, for John Ford, this time, in Wagonmaster, ten years later, another favorable portrayal of Mormons: Ford’s are cheery folk who stop for a dance every ten miles.

With his wheelwright mom

A major problem with the film is the pacing. Designed as a sweeping epic, it came in at 114 minutes, which was too long for the action. Brian Garfield described the movie as “turgid as molasses”. Myself, I’m not quite sure that turgid is the word, which I understand to mean over-ornate, bombastic or pompous. It isn’t really these things. But it is slow-moving and ponderous, and it is also piously sentimental – not a good combination. It is certainly far from Hathaway’s best picture, to say the least.

Hathaway himself thought the film very good. He said that the hardest kind of picture to make was the wagon train one, closely followed by the religious epic. Brigham Young combined the two. Not everyone agreed, however. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times opined, “Reluctantly, then, we must state that the picture is much more tedious than Brigham's life must have been … For pretty close to two hours the picture rumbles ponderously across the screen, groaning under the weight of much patient suffering on the part of all.” Crowther did add, “Considering the restrictions imposed by a heavy story and slow direction, the cast does uniformly well.”

The cast is strong, I will say that. Power is a Mormon scout, Jonathan Kent, while Darnell is Zina Webb, ‘The Outsider’, a non-Mormon who participates in the trek. They fall for each other, naturally, and provide the (monogamous) love interest. Daringly, they share a wagon, though their beds are curtained off one from the other. He proposes to her from one side of this floral curtain but she has dozed off and doesn’t reply. I don’t blame her too much. Kent isn’t exactly a firebrand, and Tyrone was not really at his zippy best. His ma, Darwell, is shot by an anti-Mormon lout and expires on the way, her son leaving her a carved wheel as a grave marker, probably worthy to be included in my Cemeteries, funerals and undertakers post.

Dramatically minor roles but big names on the lobby cards

Brian Donlevy has a part as the bolshie rival to Young. He wanted to become leader of the Mormons and regards Young as a usurper, and at every stage he is there to whip up opposition. Of course it is he who proposes to go for the gold.

He gets a bit tiresome and his part is repetitive

Vincent Price is rather good as Joseph Smith in the first reel.

Price rather good as Smith

He is most unfairly convicted of treason by a prejudiced jury, whipped up by a scurrilous rabble-rousing  lawyer (Marc Lawrence) but before the judge can sentence him a mob comes and shoots him to death in Carthage jail. The film makers missed an opportunity here because in fact Smith defended himself with a pepperbox derringer, so that would have lifted the picture, but he is shown as unarmed and mercilessly shot down, tumbling from the jail window. All the business of the split among the Mormons and the bitter factions is not mentioned at all. They are (apart from Donlevy) united in solidarity and Smith is basically a martyr.

The best other part was John Carradine as Porter Rockwell. Carradine was of course one of the greats of the Western, starting in the genre in one of those Hathaway Paramount Zane Grey pictures, and being very memorable as the gambler Hatfield in Stagecoach, assassin Bob Ford in Jesse James, Old Tom in Johnny Guitar, and Major Cassius Starbuckle in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, to name but a very few. Rockwell is a juicy part, of course, and Carradine gives it his all.

Probably the best part

We briefly meet Jim Bridger too, played by Arthur Aylesworth, not a great star, I fear. So often the great Bridger is only allotted a tiny cameo, and this is another of those occasions. Porter Rockwell and Jim Bridger have a frog race.

Stanley Andrews is Joseph Smith’s brother Hyrum, also killed in Carthage jail, Fuzzy Knight is in charge of the Mormons’ music, Tully Marshall is the lugubrious judge (he should have been Jim Bridger, as he was in Fighting Caravans), Russell Simpson the Great has a ride-on bit-part as an Army major, and Hank Worden is listed as “Mormon Cheering Porter (uncredited)”, though I didn’t spot him.

Jagger impressive as a Mosaic Brigham Young

Some scenes are frankly superb, especially the “wolf hunt” at the beginning when a crazed mob hunts the Mormons, the attack on the jail, the crossing of the frozen river, some of the wagon train shots on the long trek, and the extraordinary plague of locusts and the miraculous arrival of seagulls to destroy them.

The movie was a sort of premake of The Ten Commandments, with Jagger as Moses receiving the word of God and leading his oppressed people into the Promised Land.

The mob come for the Mormons

Nearing said Promised Land, the Mormons meet up with some potentially hostile Indians, but the chief, Big Elk (Chief John Big Tree) assures them that his people too have been unjustly persecuted, so the Mormons are brothers, and welcome to stay. Young makes the most of this, telling the Mormons that the land is theirs and that they can hunt the game to their hearts’ content, which wasn’t really what the chief had said, but, well, the Mormons are white.

Polygamy is hardly mentioned. At Fort Bridger there’s a brief exchange when Jim asks, “How many - ?” and Young promptly replies, “Twelve.” We must imagine the end of the question and the uxorious answer. But the picture stresses the devotion of Young to his No. 1 wife, Mary-Ann (Mary Astor), presumably to satisfy the Hays Office. Clearly the film makers didn’t want to frighten the horses, so little else is said. It was difficult to have polygamous goodies in 1940. The creed of Smith and Young is quite communalist. All land must be held in common. This too wasn’t terribly American (the Soviets weren’t yet the good guys in the world war) but it’s glossed over.

They cross the frozen river

It all ends with a view of the modern Salt Lake City, to show how the pioneers had succeeded and American civilization had been established thanks to their efforts (a scene ‘borrowed’ for the later How the West was Won).

According to a MovieTone newsreel the Salt Lake City opening, a month before the New York one, was the largest première in film history. 215,000 people crowded the streets to watch a massive parade, planned by Zanuck, complete with floats and race cars with the stars riding in them. The Mayor named that August 23rd 'Brigham Young Day'- the first and only. Originally, one movie theater in Salt Lake City was to show the film, but the demand for seats was so high that eventually seven theaters in the city ran it.

It didn't do spectacularly well at the box-office though. The top ten grossing movies that year were dominated by Disney (it was the year of Fantasia and Pinocchio) and MGM (Rebecca, Boom Town and The Philadelphia Story) and Fox didn't get a look in.

As I mentioned above, the critical reaction was fairly negative too.

Myself, I don’t care overmuch for this picture. I have nothing against Mormons per se but a lot of it definitely sticks in the craw. Visually it’s very fine, and the acting is on the whole pretty good, so it’s probably worth seeing once, but honestly, that’s it.



Saturday, May 23, 2020

Cemeteries, funerals and undertakers

A grave matter

Given that death was ever-present in the Western – you’ll hardly ever see one in which one person or another does not die – it is perhaps not surprising that cemeteries, funerals and undertakers are so often featured.

Hays and Dodge in Kansas both lay claim to have had the original Boot Hill. The name is said to derive (and perhaps it did) from the fact that its inhabitants died with their boots on, in other words not of natural causes in their beds. Since then it seems that every other Western town has one, often as a tourist attraction with a store selling gimcracks and gewgaws.

Buy here

The phrase Boot Hill (or Boothill) became a watchword. Everyone knew that Boot Hill was where gunfighters ended up. Back in 1937 Johnny Mack Brown starred in the epic Boothill Brigade, and in 1942 Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan made Boot Hill Bandits, another adventure with the Range Busters. Both of these are available on YouTube and, ever the completist, I am sorely tempted to review them later on, to further our scholarly study of Western interment. In 1958 Charles Bronson led the cast in Showdown at Boot Hill and in 1969 there was one of those dire Terence Hill/Bud Spencer spaghettis, La collina degli stivali (a rather literal translation), released in English as Boot Hill. That too is on YouTube but I don't know that I can face it. There is even a Boot Hill videogame.

He sure died with his boots on

In the famous title song to Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) Frankie Laine crooned 

Boothill... Boothill…
So cold... so still...
There they lay, side by side,
The killers that died,
In the Gunfight at O.K. Corral.

Deathless verse, huh? In fact the graves of Billy Clanton and Frank and Tom McLaury, who died at the OK Corral, are today a principal attraction of the Tombstone, AZ Boot Hill.
Graveyard humor

The poster for the 1939 Frontier Marshal, the one with Randolph Scott as Wyatt Earp, reads “I’m the law in Tombstone and from now on it’s up to you whether the city or the cemetery grows the fastest…!” Leaving aside the dubious grammar, we get the point.

The funeral ceremony at a cemetery was frequently a scene in the Western movie. It underlined the transitory nature of life on the frontier, heightened the pathos and also underlined the sense of community. When John Wayne interrupts the funeral in The Searchers by barking, “Put an Amen to it!” because he wants to set out immediately on his search/vengeance quest, he emphasizes his loner status as an outsider. Later, he doesn't just disrepect the obsequies; he actively desecrates a grave, when he shoots out the eyes of a disinterred Indian.

Few Western-movie funerals are more illustrative of this than that of Stonewall in Shane (1953). We see the whole local population, including animals and children, and stolid farmers sit on wooden chairs they have brought. The harmonica player does a mournful Dixie, then Taps. Starrett says, “Torrey was a pretty brave man, and I figure we'd be doin' wrong if we wasn't the same. We can have a regular settlement here, we can have a town and churches and a school.” Shane adds, “You know what he wants you to stay for. Something that means more to you than anything else. Your families. Your wives and kids. Like you, Lewis, with your girls. Shipstead with his boys. They’ve got a right to stay here and grow up and be happy. That’s up to you people, to have nerve enough and not give it up.” This is the funeral as community.

Stonewall's adieu

Funerals were often accompanied with fine photography which emphasized the mournfulness. This was certainly true of Shane (Oscar winner Loyal Griggs) but even in much lower-quality films such as Forty Guns (1957) cinematographer Joe Biroc created real atmosphere for the funeral scene.

In Rebel in Town (1956) the death of the little boy and his parents’ difficulty in coping with the tragedy are compassionately and sensitively handled. The shot of John Payne cheerfully bringing in a small saddle he has bought for the boy’s birthday party and letting it gradually drop from his hand as he hears the news, for example, is movingly done. The funeral of the child, the wife’s hearing the boy’s ghostly yahoos when they return home in black and the father’s gazing at the boy’s toy sword, are all very moving.

John Ford had a slightly sentimental way with graves. In Young Mr. Lincoln in 1939 he had had Abe (Henry Fonda) talk to his late sweetheart, committing himself to a better future, and Ford used this idea twice afterwards in Westerns, first with Fonda again as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine (1946), when he speaksover the grave of his youngest brother, killed by the Clantons, also promising a better future, and then again when he had Nathan Brittles (John Wayne) talk chattily, though less optimistically to his late wife in the cemetery.

Wyatt bids farewell to James

Capt. Brittles's wife

One of the worst things that can happen is to die and be buried out on the prairie, a fate wagon-trainers often suffered. The wind and rain would blow away the rudimentary marker and no trace would be left of the person who had been.

In the plaintive words of The Cowboy’s Lament  

Oh, bury me not on the lone prairie
These words came low and mournfully
From the pallid lips of a youth who lay
On the bloody ground at the close of day

Oh, bury me not and his voice failed there
But we took no heed to his dying prayer
In a narrow grave just six by three
We buried him there on the lone prairie

And in a later verse 

It matters not, I've been told,
Where the body lies when the heart grows cold
Yet grant, oh grant, this wish to me
Oh, bury me not on the lone prairie.

I always hear Tex Ritter's version in my head when this song comes to mind. Maybe you prefer Johnny Cash's.

This fate even befell John Wayne, in The Cowboys (1972) when arch-baddy Bruce Dern shot him, and his young cowpokes had to fashion a rudimentary grave which they could not later find. Only in extremis may the dead be abandoned. In The Last Wagon (1956) Richard Widmark has difficulty persuading his young charges to leave their dead companions, despite the imminent danger from Apaches.

In the last scene of DW Griffith’s The Last Drop of Water (1911) we focus on the mournful grave of the man who sacrificed himself for his fellows, as the wagon train recedes into the distance.

In Five Bold Women (1960) the Comanche have used one of the ladies brutally and so her worst fears have been realized. She is buried by the other four on the trail in a touching funeral, as they try to pray and sing but can’t remember all the words.

And often cowboys will gather round and take off their hats and want to “say some words” over the corpse, but they do not know the words to say. Cattle-drive Westerns, especially, felt obliged to have one of the cowboys interred on the trail - Red River, Lonesome Dove, and so on.

Cowboy Funeral by Les LeFevre

So yes, many are the funerals in Westerns, and, at first anyway, there was always a kind of respect for the dead.

In Ride Clear of Diablo (1954) there’s a classy Irving Glassberg traveling pan as Audie Murphy and the Reverend Denver Pyle walk down from the cemetery hill discussing the morality of revenge. Dignified, man.

In The Woman of the Town (1943) the funeral of Dora Hand (Claire Trevor) in Dodge features as a kind of climax and Bat Masterson (Albert Dekker) puts his guns in Dora’s grave (slightly creepy, that), renouncing Western violence, and then goes off to be a journalist in New York, The End.

Of course there were real Western funerals which were notable. There was a good turnout in Deadwood in 1876 when Wild Bill was laid to rest after Jack McCall had shot him dead in a saloon. At Buffalo Bill’s interment in 1917 on Lookout Mountain, Colorado (where I felt when I visited that there is still a palpable atmosphere despite all the souvenir stores and so on) we are told that “all morning three thousand motor cars toiled up the seven and one-half miles of Lookout Mountain”. It must have been an astonishing spectacle – fittingly. Bill’s biographer Don Russell calls it “Denver’s gaudiest funeral.” Then William S Hart and Tom Mix were pallbearers at the funeral of Wyatt Earp in Los Angeles in 1929. So there was quite a to-do when Western heroes were laid to rest.

Earp funeral. Tombstone mayor Clum and Bill Hart, center, with Mix far right.

Though when Pat Garrett died there was no coffin big enough to hold him and the undertaker needed five chairs to lay him out on.

Sometimes in Western movies, though, funerals were played if not for laughs, then at least for impact. Take Gunslinger, for example, Roger Corman’s bizarre 1956 low-budget Western. The heroine, Rose Hood (Beverly Garland), gets the mayor to pin the marshal’s badge on her comely bosom while her late husband, who had been wearing it, is being interred. In fact, during the funeral service she casually shoots to death one of the attenders at the graveside, who was one of the murderers, she claims. No one seems to mind a bit.

Marshal Rose disposes of an annoyance. Blam!

A rather unusual farewell occurs in The Shepherd of the Hills (1942) when instead of a traditional interment we get a Viking funeral, brilliantly well shot by Charles Lang.

Slightly less conventional funeral

Italian Westerns loved cemeteries, of course. I put the origin of this down to two American pictures, proper Westerns, Ambush at Tomahawk Gap (1953) and The Law and Jake Wade (1958). In both of these men are after ill-gotten loot which has been hidden in a graveyard. Here there is a ghoulish lack of respect for the dead. A grave marker is simply something convenient to lean against, and the place makes an ideal venue for the dénouement between the bad guys and the even worse guys.

Another showdown at Boot Hill

Useful to lean against

Probably the most ‘cemetery-centered’ spaghetti was Django (1966), where the showdown also takes place among the dead. This was copied, or quoted, perhaps we should say, in Sukiyaki Western Django (2007).  Django was also one of the very many ‘casket’ pictures. The spaghettis just loved coffins, which usually contained every kind of weapon (Django’s held a machine-gun) – anything but an actual corpse. There were endless titles with the word coffin in, Coffin Full of Dollars, Sartana’s Here…Trade Your Pistol for a Coffin, A Coffin for the Sheriff, and so on. The final shoot-out of The Man from Nowhere, aka Arizona Colt (1966)  takes place in a coffin shop (which obviously saves time).

Superhuman powers

And the inevitable coffin

Mind, it wasn't only spaghettis that held coffins dear. In the opening of High Plains Drifter (1973) Clint Eastwood quotes that moment  when in A Fistful of Dollars (1966) he rides into a town to the sound of exaggerated over-dubbed clip-clopping, sees a coffin-maker at work and then shoots three importunate thugs. And Eastwood quoted the Italian western cemetery tradition in the picture when as a joke/homage he had two of the grave markers bear the names of Sergio Leone and Don Siegel. And what about The Deadly Companions (1961), when Brian Keith and Maureen O'Hara very improbably carried an empty wooden box (you can tell it’s light) slowly - very slowly - across the Arizona desert while escaping from Apaches.

Sergio Leone took the cemetery as showdown venue to an extreme (of course he overdid everything) in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) with the final absolutely interminable three-way shoot-out in a circular plaza in a cemetery, which managed the extraordinary feat of making a Western showdown tedious.

Cemetery as gladiatorial arena
Before leaving this fell subject, a word or two about morticians. While due respect is often paid in Westerns to the rituals of death, undertakers, by contrast, were often comic, or at least amusingly lugubrious figures. In the 1932 Law and Order, the parlous state of law and order in Tombstone is underlined by the presence, power and prosperity of two splendid twin-brother undertakers, the Parkers (D'Arcy Corrigan and Nelson McDowell) who look almost as cadaverous as their clients. In the 1953 remake, Chubby Johnson has the colorful old-timer role as Denver, the mortician.

Cadaverous morticians

There’s a comic undertaker (Tom Fadden) who has some good lines in The Lawless Breed (1952) - in fact director Raoul Walsh had a rather irreverent attitude to death; he once borrowed John Barrymore’s corpse from a funeral parlor to frighten a drunken Errol Flynn.

In The Westerner (1940) the busy top-hatted undertaker/barber with the comic name of Mort Borrow (Charles Halton) measures up Gary Cooper for his coffin even before Judge Roy Bean has reached his verdict.

In The Quiet Gun (1957) there is also an entertaining undertaker played by Vince Barnett, that professional insulter and prankster of a comic, and Cripple Creek (1952) too all ends in a saloon brawl and a comic undertaker (Byron Foulger). I like the Doc’s sign in Man from Del Rio (1956): it advertises his services - Physician, Dentist, Veterinary and, in case all the above fail, Undertaker.

John Carradine relished the part of undertaker and was an obvious casting choice for the crowlike Beckum in The Shootist (1976). Soon after that there was an undertaker in the (pretty dire) The White Buffalo, and who else could be cast but Carradine?

Ideal casting

Other memorable morticians include Walter Brennan (he doubles as the doc) in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), John Doucette in The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) and of course Peckinpah himself in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973). One of my favorites was the amiable undertaker in The Magnificent Seven (1960), who wants to bury a dead man but the townsfolk won’t let him because the deceased was an Indian. Chris (Yul Brynner) says, “I didn’t know you had to be anything but a corpse to get into Boot Hill.” The hearse ride up to the cemetery that follows is not only the best scene in the movie, it’s one of the greatest moments in Westerns.

McQueen rode shotgun

This list is not exhaustive. I’m sure you’ll be able to think of others.

One thing is clear, death and its accoutrements play a key role in our beloved genre.

A last thought: who paid for these funerals? In Run for Cover (1955) there’s a good bit when Matt (James Cagney) takes the lawman’s job, and he slips a rolled banknote into one of the cartridge chambers of his Colt. He says old lawmen do this so they always have money for a funeral on them. A nice touch.

Back soon with a slightly less Cimmerian subject.