April 6, 2015 § Leave a comment
I’ve been slowly working my way through the Universal collection of Westerns called simply Classic Westerns: 10-Movie Collection. These cheaply produced collections can sometimes be fairly grainy, low-quality affairs, but Universal has chosen some decent films here, at least in terms of the presentation, and I find Westerns endlessly fascinating as simplified morality plays. The trouble here is mainly that viewer expectations are so different all these decades later: these are fairly slow-moving, fairly sexist films, and even the occasional burst of action isn’t even wildly entertaining if it’s ultimately cartoonish scenes of men clutching their chests and falling. To be fair, there are sometimes more impressive stunts to be found in these films.
The Spoilers has an overbearing John Wayne character pressuring the Marlene Dietrich character in various ways (she somewhat inexplicably continues to think he’s absolutely dreamy) and he even puts on blackface at one point, supposedly because he needed it to sneak around but it really serves for a remarkably dated and racist attempt at humour. Randolph Scott is on hand to loan the film a somewhat calmer character and generally improve things, despite acting as the villain. Scott only smiles more than he otherwise would and acts confidently, so that he manages to be oily but not overbearing. It’s a wise choice, as another character as overbearing as the John Wayne character would’ve resulted in a nearly unwatchable film. Scott made dozens of Westerns, and is always a more likeable and trustworthy hero than most actors can manage.
It’s worse when we get to Comanche Territory (not to be confused with Comanche Station, because Budd Boetticher actually directed very well-written Westerns) because the only male lead with any real screen time is Macdonald Carey, and he somehow manages to be quite overbearing and smarmy throughout the film. He’s opposite Maureen O’Hara, playing a character that goes from fiercely independent to doting, which is annoying in itself. Again, a few moments of impressive action can’t redeem 90 minutes with an overbearing hero, standard plot and First Nations characters played by Italians, but it’s a distinctly average Western when it doesn’t even have a single performance — not even a supporting performance — worth writing home about.
Albuquerque fares better, mainly because Randolph Scott in the lead role projects something much more calm and mature. He does this in every film — he featured in a number of Budd Boetticher films — and while the romance is as typical as ever, and some of the supporting actors terribly wooden, the pace and plot are an improvement. Overall, it’s an interesting collection that demonstrates how many Westerns were cranked out, and for decades. Most of the films from the era have a few bright spots of one kind or another to be found somewhere in a formula production. I find them almost endlessly fascinating for the values they collectively try to reinforce, the stripped-down, small town nature of the drama, and the entertainment value. They also have double historical value: they’re films about the old west as imagined decades ago in Hollywood. Science-fiction films from the 1950s that imagine a future in which the women still don’t do anything but get the coffee are just as unintentionally amusing.
Not part of this collection, The Valley of Gwangi is like one of these films on drugs, or to be more accurate, one of these films married to another kind of film entirely: the monster film, and in particular the monster film that suggests we tampered in a domain we should’ve simply left alone. It would be called “Cowboys vs. Dinosaurs” if produced today, and it’s surprising no studio has troubled to remake it. James Franciscus in the leading role means we’re back to a smarmy, beaming, somewhat overbearing lead, even as his character is both a hustler and heroic, which makes little sense. It’s also a full 25 minutes before we’re treated to the first special effect by the late, great Ray Harryhausen. The lead characters are all written fairly blandly, but it’s a convincing portrayal of the discovery of a hidden valley, and in the second half of the film the effects are great fun, providing it isn’t going to bother you a few men can hold off an Allosaurus using sticks and lassos.
In the final twenty minutes the films shifts focus to become a shortened version of King Kong, with the characters dragging the creature out to become part of a show. Freda Jackson has the fairly thankless roll of a Gypsy woman who repeatedly warns them of a curse, and the pending destruction, the final minutes of the film involve an impressive climax in the town cathedral. I’ll leave you to take what you want from that about greed and breaking faith. And while I do find John Wayne overbearing in most films, I’ll take time out to say he’s excellent in a great Howard Hawks film called Red River, where he co-stars with Montgomery Clift. Look to this collection for some average, entertaining films, and look elsewhere for the best the genre has to offer. 7 Men From Now (Randolph Scott, directed by Budd Boetticher) can be found on Netflix.