Jacques's last Western. Stack's too.
Great Day in the Morning was Jacques Tourneur’s last Western. Tourneur (left, between gargoyles, not cat people) was a class act as director, and was especially good at creating ‘mood’, that indefinable atmosphere that marked his pictures out. He had come to the US from Paris as a small boy with his father, the silent-movie director Maurice Tourneur, and had worked his way up as script clerk and editor before becoming second unit director for David O Selznick, where he met Val Lewton. When Lewton became head of horror at RKO (what a great job, head of horror) he hired Jacques to direct, and the result was the superb Cat People (1942) which was both a critical and box-office success. Tourneur’s first Western (as director; he’d had a small part on The Trail of ’98, a Klondike story, in 1928) was the excellent Canyon Passage in 1946, a seriously good picture that I’m very fond of. He would work three times with Joel McCrea, and one of these films, Stars in My Crown (1950), remained a favorite of Tourneur’s. In fact he did it for a very low salary, out of love, and that was a career mistake because studios stopped taking him seriously and by the late 50s he was reduced to working in TV, which he hated, helming, as far as Westerns go, episodes of The Californians, and even one of Bonanza. He said, “Largely, I hate doing television; it's horrible. It's against everything I believe in; if you don't bring some of your individuality and some of your experience and sensitivity to bear on a subject, you don't get more than a mechanical result.”
Actually, there are echoes of Stars in My Crown in Great Day in the Morning. Both have a complex and sensitively handled relationship between a man and a boy. In the latter, the hero Owen Pentecost (Robert Stack, second choice after Robert Mitchum) shoots a man (George Wallace) dead in a gunfight, and then feels obliged to semi-adopt the man’s son, Gary (Donald MacDonald, the lad who had been Burt Lancaster’s son the year before in The Kentuckian). Finally, Pentecost feels obliged to tell the boy who shot his father: hence the complex relationship. Oedipal, man.
It’s an eve-of-the-Civil War tale, set in early Denver, Colorado in 1861, just after the young town has changed its name from St Charles. We open with Southerner Pentecost defending himself from Indians and rescued in extremis by none other than Leo Gordon, our favorite Western heavy. Zeff Masterson (Leo) and Stephen Kirby (Alex Nicol) are with a glam blonde, Ann Merry Alaine, played by top-billed Virginia Mayo.
Mayo is from back East
She has come from back East with a load of gowns she wants to sell to the ladies of the West, and at Fort Laramie she hired Leo and Alex as guides and bodyguards to take her to Denver. Right away Leo detects that Pentecost is a Southerner, and that gets his goat. He can’t stand Johnny Rebs. "I can smell a Southerner a mile off," he says. "Smell I don't like. Nor the breed. High and godly, slave-trading, slave-beating rebel secessionists. Not fit to live, none of you. Sorry we saved your worthless hide."
Leo is one angry man
Once in Denver we meet a Catholic priest, Fr Murphy (our old pal Regis Toomey) and in the saloon, the Circus Tent (its owner is obsessed with elephants), we are introduced to a big lug (Peter Whitney) whom everyone calls Phil the Cannibal, but it’s explained away, “It’s alright, it was only once”. This saloon is a proper Western one, owned by a slimy crook in a fancy suit and containing a sexy saloon gal, Boston Grant, with a heart of gold – and it’s the lovely Ruth Roman. This was, as we know, a standard ploy in Westerns. Two ladies, a rather posh one and a racier dame with lipstick, and we wonder which one the hero will go for – and, let it be said, vice versa. I would have had no doubt at all myself: la Roman had far more spark than Ms. Mayo, but hey, I wasn’t there (unfortunately).
Ruth is attracted to the dashing Southerner
Good news: the crooked saloon owner, Jumbo Means, is Raymond Burr. It turns out that Pentecost is a darn good gambler, and despite Jumbo’s marked cards he manages to win handsomely from Jumbo. In fact, with a little help from Boston, he wins the whole saloon. Pre-Perry Mason Ray Burr had a nifty line in dress-heavy roles in Westerns. I liked him especially as the snakelike banker in A Man Alone (with Lee Van Cleef as his henchman) and as the crooked lawyer in Station West. He was especially repellent in Horizons West. In one scene in Great Day we see him unloading boxes labeled BIBLES, and we have seen enough Westerns to know durn well they actually contain guns, probably destined for the Indians. We certainly wouldn’t put that past Ray Burr.
Ray Burr, excellent as dress heavy in Westerns
Virginia gets a bath, thus joining the ranks of the actors and actresses you can read about here, and we learn more about Zeff Masterson (I wonder if he was relation of Bat’s). His brother was hanged with John Brown, so he doesn’t care for slavers and such. He beats a man near to death for suggesting that Northerners and Southerners are brothers. He's one angry man.
The two ladies are cordially rude to each other. Then the love triangle becomes a twisted quadrilateral when Kirby, Ann’s other guide/bodyguard, the one with Leo in the first reel, fancies Ann and is plainly jealous when Pentecost comes a-courtin’.
They don't get on
Now, among the chattels Pentecost has acquired with his winnings are quite a few mining claims. He does a deal with the townsmen. He will grubstake them, paying whatever is required, and he will get 50% of any gold discovered. Pretty good deal. But that’s the kind of man he is: out for the main chance, and not in the least interested in the rights and wrongs of any coming conflict between North and South. "I don't belong to anyone except myself. Sure, I'm loyal. I've got an undying loyalty to myself and no one else, nothing else".
It now turns out that Kirby is actually not just a chance hire as guide and rival for Ann's hand but a Union captain in plain clothes, and his boss is there too, Col. Carleton Young, another favorite of ours. Their job is to stop all that Colorado gold getting into the hands of the scurvy Confederates.
Pentecost gives the newly orphaned Gary a shooting lesson – knowing full well that one day those gun skills could well be turned on himself. If Gary finds out who killed his pa (even though it was self-defense: the other man drew first), there’ll sure be a reckonin’.
Well, war does duly break out, to the delight of many of the Denverites (that's the great day), Carleton and Kirby put their uniforms on, and belligerent Leo is recruited as a sergeant to whip the unruly miners into a fighting force. Sgt. Leo’s first foray is to the Circus Tent to attack that damn Reb Pentecost (even though actually Pentecost doesn’t support the Confederacy particularly) and there’s a good shoot-out there, though Leo isn’t too adept, shooting dead one of his own men and then the priest. Oops. Unfortunately, Pentecost is hit when the pesky kid gets in the line of fire. Luckily it’s only a flesh wound, but still, Ruth has to nurse him. And another old pal, Burt Mustin, he of the amusing face, disgracefully uncredited but immediately recognizable, is the local doc, fond of a drop. Excellent.
Well, it all builds to an action climax involving thrown dynamite (which hadn’t been invented yet but let’s not get picky), the boy learns who killed his poppa, Pentecost finally comes down on the Reb side and the choice of fair damsel is made – though quite unusually for a Western, one of the ladies is murdered, by Ray Burr with a knife (knives were always lowdown weapons, or Indian ones, which amounted to the same thing) and so Pentecost’s choice is somewhat reduced. Ray gets what he deserves, though.
The boy finds out who shot his dad
Robert Stack didn’t do a great number of Westerns but he was quite good in them, I thought. This was his last. He’d been cast as lead in his very first, back in 1941 in Universal’s Badlands of Dakota, then had done Men of Texas with Broderick Crawford the year after, and also led in My Outlaw Brother (Mickey Rooney being said bro) in 1951. That was followed by War Paint and Conquest of Cochise in ’53. So this one made six, not a great number for Hollywood stars in the 50s but enough to say he’d climbed into the saddle.
Stack good in the saddle
It’s a handsome looking picture, nicely shot in Technicolor and SuperScope by William Snyder (13 Westerns including some visually fines ones, The Treasure of Pancho Villa, The Man from Colorado, Unconquered, et al). I recognized the locations right off: it was shot at Silverton, terminus of the excellent railroad which runs up from Durango.
Great Day in the Morning didn’t get rave reviews, and it didn’t wow the box-office either. A pity, because I think it’s rather good. Curiously, some guides don’t even consider it a Western at all (IMDb classifies it as Action, Adventure, Drama) but this is odd. It’s a Western, alright. The New York Times at the time called it “standard six-gun fare” and later on (the 1980s) Brian Garfield said it was “talky, overwrought and soporific”. Tourneur himself, in 1966, said of it, "Je l'ai complètement oublié celui-là. Ce n'était pas très réussi. L'histoire était trop morcelée, trop décousue”, my translation being I’ve completely forgotten that one. It wasn’t a great success. The story was too fragmented, too rambling.
It was written as his only Western by Lesser Samuels (I don’t know if his daddy was Greater Samuels) from the 1950 Robert Hardy Andrews novel of the same title. There are some not-bad lines. I liked Carleton's, “The North and South are natural enemies - like husband and wife.”
Dennis Schwartz has been a little more complimentary, calling it “a superior Western” and saying it was “directed with skill and a good eye for detail”. And Jeff Arnold’s West gave it three revolvers, so it can’t have been that bad. OK, yes, it’s not up to the standard of other Tourneur Westerns such as Canyon Passage or Wichita, but it’s certainly better than average, better than many a 1956 oater, and would repay a watch.
So long for now, e-pards.