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

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Gunfight in Abilene (Universal, 1967)


Bobby Darin tries on a Stetson




 
 
In the 1950s and 60s Universal produced many Westerns and a lot of them, though clearly B movies, were of a considerable quality. Audie Murphy and Jeff Chandler, for example, were no John Wayne in terms of cowboy-star box-office but they were in a long series of quite high quality oaters, and the films were generally well photographed in impressive and Western-looking locations. Production values were high.

However, the studios also churned out some clunkers. Some of the Westerns were more C than B. Take, for example, Gunfight in Abilene, starring Bobby Darin, who, as an actor, made a great singer. In 1964 Darin was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (in Captain Newman, M.D.), but you wouldn’t guess that from this movie, where he is, frankly, wooden. This was his only Western, and little wonder. Maybe he was trying to be Dean Martin. If so, he didn’t make it.
 

Stick to 45 rpms for teeny-boppers, Bobby
 

Right from the cheesy titles and corny introductory Darin ballad you get the impression that this movie was low quality. Was it maybe made for TV? Yes, it’s in color and Techniscope but the acting, writing and direction are all pretty poor. It was written by Berne Giler, who was just starting a long career of writing TV western shows, and John DF Black, ditto, and sports a clichéd and improbable script. It was directed in a predictable and pretty clunky way by William Hale, known for the Cheyenne series on TV. The cast supporting Darin are very much also-rans, Leslie Nielsen as the baddy Grant Evers being about the highest profile.
 

About the best actor in it
 

It’s the old one about the hero shocked by the war into not wearing a gun – but we know that inevitably he will strap it back on to deal with the bad guy.

They all wear very 60s tight clothes and use post-1873 Colts in a story set just after the Civil War. There’s a Main Street showdown at the end, not very well staged. And then we have to suffer Bobby Darin’s singing again at the end in the soppy song Amy.
 

Skip it
 

No, I’m afraid it won’t do.

 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Lawman aka The Way of the West, The Mountie, The Ranger (Travesty Productions, 2011)


Clint impressions in the Yukon




 
 
Canadian Westerns aren’t always the very best examples of the genre (for example, the Canadian video version of The Virginian is certainly best skipped) but this one isn’t bad, as TV Westerns go.

For one thing, it’s very well photographed. It was shot in the Canadian Yukon by Rene (René, perhaps) Smith and is visually very attractive. The atmosphere throughout is of cold and dark.
 

Nicely photographed
 

The acting, however, is acceptable, no more, the writing pretty obvious and the direction a bit plodding.

The film has many titles. It is called Lawman on Netflix, where I watched it, but was The Mountie when it first appeared on TV in Canada and in the UK it was called The Ranger. I don’t know why. At least it bears no relation (fortunately) to the 1971 Western Lawman which, despite a magnificent Robert Ryan, was junk.

The movie is almost ruined by some doggerel by Robert William Service (wrongly known as the Canadian Kipling) which is far too long and very badly recited as a voiceover by a child. Most unfortunately, this blasted ‘poem’ keeps coming back to haunt us throughout the film. You have to turn the sound down at those points.

Still, there are one or two interesting aspects. The bad guys are Cossacks, which must be a first for a Western, I guess. There’s an evil Latvian priest (Earl Pastko) who is quite good too. He has a stand-up gunfight with the Mountie hero near the end. Quick-on-the-draw clergymen are quite amusing. The reverend and the Cossacks are into opium growing, which the Mountie does not care for.
 

 
Showdowns between Latvian priests and Mounties must be pretty rare in Westerns
 
 

This red-coated hero, played by Andrew W Walker doing a Clint impression, is kind to both a child and a horse, so we can tell he is a goody.
 

Walker playing Eastwood
 

The picture was directed, produced and co-written by one S Wyeth Clarkson, a Canadian film person whose only Western this is.

In the thank yous at the end credit is given to “Louis L’amour” (sic) but I’m not quite sure why.

While eminently missable, this flick is also just about watchable and a good deal better than a lot of Hallmark-bland TV Westerns we are presented with. You could try it. You wouldn’t regret it all that much.

 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Don ‘Red’ Barry


Forty years in the saddle


Don ‘Red’ Barry, or Donald Barry de Acosta, or possibly Milton Poimboeuf (1912 - 1980) reached his peak of Western stardom, such as it was, in the early 1940s.

His first Western appearances were in two of Republic’s Roy Rogers/Gabby Hayes oaters of 1939, Days of Jesse James and Saga of Death Valley, when he was 27. In between these two he was fourth-billed, after John Wayne, Ray Corrigan and Raymond Hatton, in a Republic Three Mesquiteers film, as the eponymous Wyoming Outlaw.

But his real breakthrough came in 1940 when he starred as Red Ryder. Though Red Ryder was tall in the comic strip and Barry was only five foot four (1.64m), luckily he had a boy sidekick who was even shorter. You’d have to be quite elderly now (even older than I am) to have grown up with Red Ryder. The comic strip created by Stephen Slesinger and artist Fred Harman began in November 1938 and moved to radio in 1942. Despite two pilots, it never made the vital leap to television and was therefore doomed to perdition. However, as a juvenile twelve-chapter Republic movie serial The Adventures of Red Ryder it was enormously successful. There followed no fewer than 27 Red Ryder films between 1944 and 50, but not with Barry. Wild Bill Elliott, then Allan ‘Rocky’ Lane and Jim Bannon played Red. The 1940 hit had been enough, however, to give Donald Barry his nickname, and he was forever after Don ‘Red’ Barry.
 

As Red Ryder, with 'Apache' sidekick
 

Now on contract, Barry led in a quantity of Republic Westerns, mostly directed by George Sherman: five more in 1940, eight in 1941 and seven in 1942. In one of the ’42 pictures he returned as Jesse James (kind of) in Jesse James, Jr. Eight more Westerns reached the screen in 1943. All these films seem very poor to us now but were popular at the time and made Don ‘Red’ Barry a widely-known name, at least in the B movie world.

But it was all downhill from the end of the Republic contract onwards. He starred in only one Western in 1944, Outlaws of Santa Fe, and in 1945 was back to a supporting role in a Roy Rogers flick, Bells of Rosarita, fourteenth-billed after Bill Elliott, Allan Lane and Trigger.

There were two small Western roles in 1946, cameos really, Out California Way with Monte Hale being Barry’s last Western for Republic for eight years. There was none in 1947 or ‘48. In 1949 he formed his own production company and made a come-back when he starred as a marshal hunting the Dalton brothers in The Dalton Gang in 1949, followed by three other eminently forgettable B Westerns that year.
 

At the height of his fame in the mid-1940s
 

There were four productions in which he took the lead in 1950, including I Shot Billy the Kid, in which he was Billy (Robert Lowery was Garrett).

Barry’s erratic and difficult behavior made film roles increasingly rare. He was in a Stories of the Century episode on TV in 1954 and that year got the lead in a shockingly bad picture released by United Artists, Jesse James’ Women, which he also co-produced, co-wrote and directed. He was also second-billed to Judy Canova at Republic again in Untamed Heiress.
 

Peggy Stewart, the first Mrs. Barry (George Sherman was best man at their wedding)
 

There followed TV appearances in Gunsmoke, Cheyenne, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon and another Stories of the Century episode. He was bad man Clete in the Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher Western Seven Men from Now in 1956, and was in the George Montgomery oater Gun Duel in Durango in ’57 but feature films were rare; it was mostly TV westerns in the mid-50s. He appeared, sometimes in several episodes, in Maverick, Have Gun Will Travel, Sugarfoot, Colt .45, Bat Masterson, Lawman, Bronco, others, almost invariably as heavy.

He was in Warlock in 1957 but had sunk to uncredited bit parts. The next film Western wasn’t until 1961, Buffalo Gun. In the 1960s he made nine appearances, as different characters, in The Virginian on TV, and in the 70s he appeared in six episodes of Little House on the Prairie as farmer Judd Larrabee.
 

Don 'Red' Barry
 

There was still the occasional small part in a film Western. He was ‘Red’ in the 1964 Dale Robertson film Law of the Lawless, had a small part in Apache Uprising in ’65, and bit parts followed in Town Tamer, Convict Stage, Fort Courageous and War Party. At least he was working. In 1966 he was Confederate Lt. Farrow in Alvarez Kelly. The following year he was in the John Ireland Tom Horn movie Fort Utah. He got three small Western parts in 1968, in Bandolero!, Shalako and The Shakiest Gun in the West. He continued as occasional heavy in TV shows. He was uncredited as barman in Rio Lobo in 1970. Blink and you’ll miss him but he was Homer Rutledge in Junior Bonner.

Ego, bad temper and alcohol-fueled domestic disputes combined with lack of work and pushed him into depression, and in 1980 Don ‘Red’ Barry committed suicide.

It was not a glorious Western career and Barry was no glittering star in the Hollywood firmament but he served his time in the saddle and we recognize that stocky frame on the screen, especially the small one.

 
Barry the year before his death

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Day of the Outlaw (United Artists, 1959)


The Malevolent Seven
 

 


 
 
 
What a superb Western actor Robert Ryan was! He was, in his stern, tough way, so very good that it is extremely difficult to name his best role. Was it opposite James Stewart in The Naked Spur? Bad Day at Black Rock would most certainly be a contender if you rate that a Western. His Deke Thornton in The Wild Bunch, of course. Even in low-grade pulp Westerns, like the dismal Lawman, he was superb. But you’d have to go a long way to beat his performance in a late-1950s film, Day of the Outlaw. In that he is simply stunning.
 

 

And this time he plays the goody. Well, sort of. He is a ruthless rancher, hard as nails, determined to extirpate the johnny-come-lately small homesteaders who have dared to string wire on ‘his’ open range! That’s an ideal part for a tough-guy badman, of course. But in this movie he develops into something far more: a man of courage and grit, ready to sacrifice the woman he loves and even his very life to save the town he helped build. In a quirk - a deliberate play, I am sure - Ryan’s character has the name of the leading homesteader in Shane, Starrett. It’s a moving, gripping performance.
 

 

He had the good fortune to have Burl Ives opposite him, as the outlaw chief “Capt. Jack Bruhn, United States Army. Formerly.” And Ives was also first class. Outstanding. Right from his dramatic entry nineteen minutes in (when the film suddenly lurches off at a tangent), bursting open the saloon door just as Ryan and the principal homesteader are about to draw on each other, he is like a whirlwind. He mixes power and menace in a blindingly good portrayal of a wounded man trying to hold the other six renegade white-trash thugs together. If you only know Ives’s Western acting from his part as Big Mac McCreedy in Alias Smith and Jones you have missed a lot because he was a splendid actor. And I don’t think he was ever better than in Day of the Outlaw.
 

 

For the bandits number seven, and quite right too. Seven is the proper number for all posses, bands of gunmen and outlaw gangs, as any true Western fan knows.

Ten years later something very similar was to happen to James Stewart when Henry Fonda and his brutal gang descended on the small town of Firecreek but good as Stewart and Fonda were, they weren’t a patch on Ryan and Ives. The characters of Ryan and Ives are in some ways similar. The laws of electromagnetics notwithstanding, like poles attract. The men respect each other. They are both hard cases ready to resort to the gun but in fact (though this may be well hidden) both decent deep down.

Of course Firecreek only had Vincent McEveety to direct it and from the outset he was a TV western director of only moderate ability, whereas Day of the Outlaw was helmed by André de Toth. Now De Toth didn’t always make good films. Some of his Randolph Scott oaters, for example, were distinctly ordinary, and if it hadn’t been for Randy himself might even have been duds. But just occasionally he did something really special. Ramrod, for example, is a world-class Western. And Day of the Outlaw, too, his last Western film as director, is such a one. De Toth starts it slow, establishing his characters and their relationships, and he gradually builds the tension. The last 23-minute sequence, when Ryan leads the gang out of town into the Wyoming winter, is as harrowing as it is tense. And De Toth drew superlative performances from all the actors concerned.
 

 

The badmen are really well done. Bruhn kindly introduces to the saloon (and us) the six ruffians under his iron command, one by one. First, Tex and Pace (Jack Lambert and Lance Fuller). Tex: “Rile him and you’re gonna hear some screaming in this town today.” Pace “derives pleasure out of hurting people.”

 

 
Denver (Frank DeKova) is half-Cheyenne: Bruhn says simply, “Him hate white man” but he adds that he is not quite so antagonistic to white women. Vause (Paul Wexler): “Bones covered with dirty skin but he’s the fastest draw in Wyoming territory.” Shorty, the old-timer (Jack Woody): “We soldiered together,” says the captain. Enough said. And the seventh is (he had to be) a kid, Gene (David Nelson). “He’s a fresh recruit but he’s learning fast.” Actually, that was wrong because he turns out to be the only one of the henchmen with any decency in him.
 

 

All of these actors except Nelson had been in loads of film and TV Westerns and were well-known heavies.  You will doubtless recognize them. They are all excellently menacing and brutal.

The women are firstly Helen Crane (Tina Louise), the wife of a homesteader. She is ashamed of herself and is trying to break off her affair with rancher Starrett, who doesn’t want to but tells her to go back to her husband. Crane (Alan Marshal) is cuckolded, jealous and bitter, and no gunman, but he is determined to face up to Starrett, if needs be to the death. There’s also a younger girl who falls for the apprentice outlaw Gene. She is Ernine, played by Venetia Stevenson. Both actresses do a good job and are credible in their respective roles. Neither was what you would call a Western specialist. Louise was in six TV westerns and three movies; Stevenson was in twelve TV westerns but only two movies.
 

 

The writing is top notch, a Philip Yordan screenplay from a Lee E Wells novel. Yordan wrote The Man from Laramie and The Bravados, and you don't get better than that. Well, you do, but not often.

It is, mostly, a siege Western and when siege Westerns are well done, as in this case, they build tension and menace, but they also develop character, as ‘good’ men are found wanting and ‘bad’ men step up as crisis discovers unsuspected qualities.

None of the characters in Day of the Outlaw is two-dimensional. They are all subtly drawn: the ruthless rancher who is ready to sacrifice himself, the scandal-touched wife who returns to the husband she does not love, the silly girl and the young outlaw who find love, the monstrous gang boss who, dying, does the right thing.

The setting is Wyoming, as is immediately clear. A harsh, pitiless Wyoming. Bitters, an impoverished, dirt-scrabble town in frozen mud. When Helen asks Starrett for mercy, he replies, “You won’t find much mercy anywhere in Wyoming.” The winter has been even harder than usual and a real blizzard is on the way. It is all beautifully photographed, in austere black & white, by the great Russell Harlan. Harlan had started in Hollywood as an actor and stuntman but had cut his Western teeth as cinematographer on B Westerns and programmers in the late 1930s. However, in the late 1940s he had superlatively shot films of the caliber of Ramrod, Four Faces West and the great Red River. In Day of the Outlaw he makes the most of the Oregon locations standing in for Wyoming and gives us a fearsome winter terrain that makes us feel cold even indoors. And he gives us stunning close-ups of faces which tell all.
 

 

Highlights photographically and also of direction are the fistfight in the snow, the bandits’ dance with the fearing women and the final trek into the thick snow to nowhere, as the outlaws battle the elements and then each other, one murdering the other in a finally futile internecine conflict, like jackals tearing their own kind apart. And for me, because I am besotted by derringers, another high spot is when outlaw leader Ives pulls one on one of his men who is assaulting one of the women.

The original music is by Alexander Courage, now known for his theme for the first series of Star Trek. It is appropriately somber, oppressive and menacing.

I will not reveal the ending but you go “phew!” at the termination of the film.

Day of the Outlaw is a fine Western by anyone’s reckoning. It is worth seeing for Ryan and Ives alone but it has many other fine qualities too. Four revolvers, e-pards!

 

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Girl of the Golden West/La Fanciulla del West (1905 play and 1911 novel by David Belasco/1910 opera by Giacomo Puccini)


Horse opera


David Belasco (1853 – 1931) was an impresario, director and playwright from San Francisco. Throughout his long career, stretching from the 1880s 1930, Belasco either wrote, directed, or produced more than 100 Broadway plays including Hearts of Oak, The Heart of Maryland and Du Barry, making him one of the most powerful personalities on the New York City theater scene. He is perhaps most famous for having adapted the 1898 John Luther Long short story Madame Butterfly into a 1900 play with the same name and for writing The Girl of the Golden West for the stage in 1905: both were turned into operas by Giacomo Puccini (1904, 1910). More than forty motion pictures have been made from Belasco’s works.
 

David Belasco
 

Belasco’s parents had moved to California at the time of the gold rush and he was brought up with tales of striking it rich, gold camps and Indians. This all contributed to the four-act melodrama which opened at the old Belasco Theatre in New York on November 14, 1905 and ran for 224 performances. Blanche Bates first took the role of The Girl, Robert C. Hilliard played Dick Johnson, and Frank Keenan was Jack Rance. The play toured throughout the US and Belasco wrote a novel based on the play (what we would today call a novelization) in 1911.
 

1910 production
 

Giacomo Puccini saw the play in New York in 1907, and was entranced. He immediately decided that it should be turned into an opera. Carlo Zangarini and Guelfo Givinni began work on a libretto. La Fanciulla del West, the first piece to be commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, premiered at New York in 1910, with Belasco as stage director and a stellar cast of singers: Toscanini conducted; Enrico Caruso, Emmy Destinn and Pasquale Amato sang the leads; and Puccini, alone in his box, surveyed the scene. It was received very well.
 

Jack Puccini
 

The Girl of the Golden West was made into four films: silent movies in 1915 and 1923, a talkie in 1930 and a Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy musical in 1938. The opera has been given many times since and remains one of Puccini’s finest, if perhaps underrated works.
 

Caruso as Dick Johnson
 

I haven’t seen the play or managed to track down its script but I have read the novel and seen the opera, so let’s have a quick look at those.

The novel starts with a quotation from an Early History of California:

In those strange days, people coming from God knows where, joined forces in that far Western land, and, according to the rude custom of the camp, their very names were soon lost and unrecorded, and here they struggled, laughed, gambled, cursed, killed, loved and worked out their strange destinies in a manner incredible to us of to-day. Of one thing only are we sure - they lived!

We are on a stagecoach bound for Cloudy Mountain Camp, California, in about 1850. An uneducated country girl is on her way back to the saloon she runs from her first trip to a big town (Monterey) when a handsome Spanish-speaking stranger gallops up and gives her a bunch of syringa. She is entranced by him. We are told that:

All that her frank and easy manner suggested was that she was a child of nature, spontaneous and untrammelled [all the spelling is that of British English, for some reason] by the dictates of society, and normally and healthily at home in the company of the opposite sex.

As an illustration:

"And you like Monterey?"
"I love it! Ain't it romantic--an', my, what a fine time the girls there must have!"
The man laughed; the Girl's enthusiasm amused him.

The dashing caballero is Ramerrez Bartolini, heir to a once-great, now impoverished estate. His dying father tells him that he has been a bandit for the last three years, because of his determination to get back at the hated Americanos, and dad obliges the young man to swear that he will continue marauding. Ramerrez reluctantly consents.

The scene now shifts to The Polka, the big saloon in Cloudy owned by the Girl, where the opera, and probably the play, opens (the initial events being referred to but not enacted).
 

The play
 

We meet the various characters, like the barman Nick, the crooked faro dealer The Sidney Duck, the miners Sonora, Trinidad and the others. Of course there are songs, and Jake the minstrel comes in (in blackface in the opera). A young Belasco had heard the singing of minstrel Jake Wallace in a mining camp in Nevada and never forgot it. There is one tune, the 1853 Stephen Foster song Old Dog Tray, highlighted:

How often do I picture
The old folks down at home,
And often wonder if they think of me.
Would angel mother know me,
If back there I did roam?
Would old dog Tray remember me?

Puccini does an especially wonderful job with this fairly corny song, making it lyrical, moving and triste.
 

Wonderful music
 

Anthony Tommasini, in The New York Times, wrote:

The score emerged as arguably Puccini’s most subtly written and boldly modern music. In place of those typical Puccini melodic outbursts that grab you and won’t let go, this ingenious score folds refined lyrical strands into a nearly through-composed musical fabric.

A handsome stranger, Dick Johnson from Sacramento, comes to the Polka. He is treated with suspicion because he is a new face, because bandits are in the area and the miners keep their gold in the Polka. But he is especially disliked, by Sheriff Rance in particular (Rance loves the Girl), because he pays court to the saloon owner. Of course Minnie has immediately recognized Johnson as Ramerrez.
 

Those who play the Girl are not always slim fanciulle...
 

There’s a Wells, Fargo agent on the trail of the bandit chief and a Pony Express rider appears with a message for him (which is a bit odd for 1850 but never mind). There’s a racy girl named Nina Micheltorena who seems a bit of a floozy and the Girl wonders if Ramerrez has dallied with her (he has). The miners form a posse and set out in the winter cold to search for the road agent.
 

Rather dashing, don't you think?
 

The scene shifts to the Girl’s cabin up on Cloudy Mountain where Johnson/Ramerrez daringly comes to visit and even spends the night – chastely, of course but still it was all rather racy for the early 1900s. Ramerrez declares his love for the Girl and willingness to give up banditry and go away with her, and he gets her first kiss. Sweet, isn’t it. They have an early lovers’ quarrel when jealous Minnie finds out that Ramerrez has consorted with la Micheltorena. Ramerrez leaves but is caught by the posse and shot. He returns to the cabin wounded and Minnie hides him. The scene where Rance comes, discovers Ramerrez and plays cards with the Girl for him is quite gripping. Ramerrez is going to get the noose or a wedding ring, whichever way the cards fall.
 

Met general manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza, director David Belasco, conductor Arturo Toscanini and Giacomo Puccini
 

The saloon and cabin scenes are very similar in the novel and the opera. But in the novel the last scene shifts back to the Polka, whereas in the opera we have an outdoor set where Ramerrez, who has been caught, is to be hanged. It’s all very dramatic, as befits an opera, as the bandit’s fate is finally decided. In the novel, it happens ‘off’ and is rather less climactic. The novel has a curious scene of an improvised classroom in the saloon where the Girl is the schoolmistress and the miners, who are there to learn their basic letters, behave like naughty schoolboys. It didn’t work for me and isn’t in the opera.

Melodrama, that’s the only word for it, I’m afraid. With opera, of course, that’s half the point but the novel comes across now as hopelessly dated, not to say corny. It’s an interesting read but not a subtle one. Characters are rather one-dimensional. Musically, however, it is a delight and the music washes lyrically over you (if you like that sort of thing, and I do).

Puccini’s loved the American West. In 1890 he saw William F. Cody’s Wild West show in Milan and wrote enthusiastically to his brother, about "a group of North Americans with a quantity of Indian redskins and buffaloes that perform splendid shooting tricks and truly represent scenes from the frontier.” He later wrote, “For this drama I have composed music that, I feel sure, reflects the spirit of the American people and particularly the strong, vigorous nature of the West. I have never been West, but I have read so much about it that I know it thoroughly.”

In appropriately Western style the Girl has a pocket pistol and while in 1850 this would have been a single-shot flintlock gadget, in some productions she has a proper derringer. Hooray!


At that range a derringer could hurt
 
 
Sadly, however, in most productions of the opera there are no horses. Puccini wanted them and there were ten in the first performance. What's a horse opera with no horses?


Saturday, September 20, 2014

Juarez (Warner Bros, 1939)


Costume drama gives us Mexican history, Hollywood style




 
 
Movies like Warner Brothers' 1939 Juarez, however good (or bad) they may be, are not really Westerns. Warners came out with Dodge City in 1939. That was a Western.

Some motion pictures which happen to have Mexico as a setting are Westerns. The Magnificent Seven, of course, and The Professionals. The Wild Bunch too. But those are Westerns set in Mexico, not films about Mexican history.

There is also another category, what we might call semi-Westerns, when gringos go south of the border and get involved in Mexican revolutions. Robert Mitchum did that a lot (The Wonderful Country, Bandido, Villa Rides) and movies like Vera Cruz, Wings of the HawkDuck, You Sucker (or whatever you want to call it) or Bullet for the General are in this class. Many Pancho Villa stories had a gringo in there somewhere, to ‘justify’ Hollywoodism. Look at And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself, Viva Villa!, Pancho Villa, and so on.

But gringoless American films about old Mexico are really more historical costume dramas. Viva Zapata! is a first class movie, with horses and guns, filmed in Texas (the Mexican authorities were unhappy with the treatment of Zapata and didn’t want it shot there), starring Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn, directed by Elia Kazan for Fox and written by John Steinbeck. But it isn’t a Western. Still, we have a very liberal interpretation of what constitutes a Western on this blog, so farewell, purists, have a nice day; we're going to watch Juarez.

Wilhelm Dieterle (1893 – 1972) was born and died in Germany but is thought of as a Hollywood film director. He came to the United States when he was 37, in 1930, and put his talents to work for Warners. He had long been an actor in and director of European films and had worked under Paul Leni, FW Murnau, Conrad Veidt, Emil Jannings and other luminaries of German expressionist cinema. At Warners he specialized in biopics and made films about Madame Du Barry, Louis Pasteur and Emile Zola, the last two with Paul Muni in the lead (Paul probably passed on the first one). It seemed natural that Dieterle and Muni should have a go at Juárez next.
 

Wilhelm/William Dieterle
 

John Huston, no less, was one of the writers. The screenplay was based on a play by Franz Werfel and a novel by Bertita Harding.

Benito Pablo Juárez García was a lawyer of peasant Zapotec origin who served as Mexico’s President for five terms from 1858 to 1872. As a young man he managed to gain an education and he became a lawyer, then a judge, and governor of the state of Oaxaca from 1847 to 1852. He was driven into exile (he worked in a cigar factory in New Orleans) because of his opposition to the autocratic and corrupt regime of President Santa Anna. At the fall of Santa Anna in 1855 Juárez became a leading figure in La Reforma, then interim President as Mexico wallowed in bloody civil conflict, before being elected in his own right. His leadership of the struggle against Napoleon III’s forces and the overthrow of Napoleon’s puppet the Emperor Maximilian is a famous one.
 

Benito Pablo Juárez García

 
The Juárez of Dieterle and his writers, played by a heavily made-up Muni, is ethical, noble, almost saintly, and much is made of his admiration of and friendship with Abraham Lincoln, whom he tries to emulate in all but height (Juárez was a tiny man, 4 feet 6 inches or 1.37m in height). In the film he is often seen below a picture of Mr. Lincoln.

 
Benito and Abe

 
The support he received from President Buchanan is not mentioned. The anti-clericalism of Juárez is not addressed either, and Juárez seems to mastermind the fall of Maximilian personally and without assistance. Muni’s performance is stiff and formal but he makes the president an enormously attractive character. He certainly looks like Juárez.
 

Juárez, Muni

  

But the film manages a neat trick: it makes the great opponent of Juárez, the Emperor Maximilian, sympathetic too. The Hapsburg monarch is played by English actor Brian Aherne, who had made his Broadway debut in 1931 as Robert Browning in The Barretts of Wimpole Street. He was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Maximilian and with just cause. His Maximilian is no arrogant autocrat or extravagant philanderer but a sensitive person who sincerely tries to do the right thing by the population of his new country. So we have two upstanding protagonists. Both Maximilian and Juárez have, however, in their entourage untrustworthy, ambitious and scheming people.
 

Aherne as Maximilian
 

Juárez has his (fictional) Vice President Alejandro Uradi, played by the excellent Joseph Calleia – such a good actor. He snipes at Juárez and finally launches a coup against him, which Juárez bravely (and alone) overcomes. Maximilian has repressive Maréchal Bazaine, played by Donald Crisp. I never thought Crisp good in Westerns – he was too English, too ‘posh’, somehow – but he does a good job here, constantly urging the Emperor to crush his subjects and grind them underfoot.

And behind them all lurks the Machiavellian presence of Napoleon III. Claude Rains was the ideal, almost inevitable choice for the scheming, vain, unreliable ‘ally’. Gale Sondergaard makes his wife Eugénie almost as politically underhand.
 

Napoleon III and Eugénie scheme and plot
 

While this is all rather simplistic, the plot of the film does generally more or less conform to historical fact as far as Hollywood ever does. None of Maximilian’s love affairs are shown, or even hinted at. His overspending and lack of interest in the real welfare of his people are also not addressed. But it could have been a lot worse.
 

The real Maximilian, not quite so noble
 

Maximilian is supported, almost fanatically so, by his wife Carlota (Charlotte), played by Bette Davis. There’s a sickly-sentimental scene as she prays to the Virgin Mary for a son she cannot have. Later, furious at Louis Napoleon's betrayal of her husband, she goes to Paris to rage at the “bourgeois Bonaparte”. There she declines into mental illness, giving Bette full license to chew the scenery.
 

The Empress Bette...
 
...goes off her rocker
 

Juárez is supported by John Garfield as a young Porfirio Diaz, an intensely loyal Diaz who gives no clue as to his future role as ruler of Mexico. Gilbert Roland is a super-loyal disciple of Maximilian who, Judas-like, finally betrays him, doing wrong for all the right reasons. Irving Pichel and Monte Blue take small parts.
 

A rather dashing Porfirio Díaz

 
The original music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold is very well done and cleverly incorporates variations on the themes of various national anthems when those countries are mentioned or a representative of that nation appears. Korngold adapted parts of the score, the love theme in particular, for his violin concerto in D major, op. 35, in 1945.
 


Very dramatic, occasionally melodramatic photography
 

Visually the picture is very fine and Tony Gaudio received the other Academy Award nomination of the film. It’s in black & white. There are scenes clearly suggested by Goya’s portrayals of another brutal war.
 

Goya influence
 

If you’re willing to watch a non-Western every now and then (it does happen) you will probably enjoy this movie. Take it with a pinch of salt – that goes without saying. It’s too long. But it has a decent vaguely leftist agenda and overall it’s an enjoyable excursion from Los Angeles into nineteenth-century Mexican history.