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Monday, July 09, 2018

History Brought To Technicolored Life


Colonial Hardship Of Drums Along The Mohawk (1939)


Another stress watch, as many classics have become for me. No blame on John Ford's film, but Drums Along The Mohawk is intense, Indian attacks way harrowing despite repeats of the show and knowing well the finish. Hordes not shown close-up ("Thousands, and they're coming this way!") make any stand against them seem hopeless, which for most of run time, is dispiriting case. How often were real-life pioneers obliged to rebuild after yet another scorch-out of communities? These natives are scarier than most in movies, and that may be why Ford gets latter-day slam for portraying them that way. A tense wrap is out of Griffith's Birth Of A Nation playbook, siege on the settler's fort reaching pitch of children snatched from mothers and nearly tossed to flames before reinforcement arrives at a last moment. Did this cause nightmares for 1939-40 youth? (would have for me) Drums was pitched aggressively to schools, so kids were there as groups, maybe less so by choice. Much as I admire Drums Along The Mohawk, there's fierce edge to its blade that Ford humor cannot undo. How to erase recall of helpless Francis Ford strapped to a hay wagon set ablaze? Takes time, or maybe my hide has thinned for this sort of mayhem.






Americana and patriotic topics was table set for much of 1939 showgoing. Even shorts went three-corner hat route via Warners and its "Sons Of Liberty" group, these less for profit than trumpet blowing "Good Citizenship" on WB part for making them. Westerns as told on empire builder terms were wows for profit, but looks to America's Revolution bore taste of chalk and dates to memorize. In short, back to school, and how was that fun? Allegheny Uprising from RKO went unwanted ($230K lost), while wiser heads stayed clear of the era most considered poison for movies (that had been assumed for Civil War themes as well, until GWTW). Maybe crowds were exhausted with Americana by November 1939 when Drums Along The Mohawk was released. Ford and Fox had gone enrichment route earlier in the year with Young Mr. Lincoln, and that yielded red ink. So too would Drums Along The Mohawk, which cost more ($1.4 million to Lincoln's $606K), did much better, but not enough to return a heady investment in Technicolor and location filming. Drums Along The Mohawk wasn't a disaster ($2.1 million in worldwide rentals), but that wasn't enough to see profit, and profit was what Fox was in business to generate.






A starting-out squawk I had this time was miscast of Claudette Colbert as co-lead with Henry Fonda. He's right, her less so, or maybe it's Fonda looking younger than his thirty-four years when Drums was made. Colbert had two years on him (born 1903), and buying her as sheltered daughter seen off to frontier wedlock by weeping mom Clara Blandick is asking much. Better choice for the part, admittedly less starry, would have been Linda Darnell, new to 20th and initially used for the ingénue part Dorris Bowdon ultimately took over (Darnell is said to be visible in long shots). Sounds unlikely at first blush, but the role needed a girl untried by frontier life, which Colbert decidedly was not, having a so-far career at knowing the score, and better served by contemporary backdrop. Darnell was admittedly green, as in virtually no experience, but wouldn't all that have worked to considerable advantage had Ford brought her carefully along and gotten the character his narrative ideally sought? Word was that Colbert talked back to customarily unchallenged Ford, her ace being status as loaned-out star, as in major star, from Paramount. Serious argument between these two could have led to a him-or-me phone call back to Fox, and I'm not so sure Ford would have prevailed. Give me Darnell then, for ideal pairing with Fonda (and they would get together the following year in Chad Hanna).


Robert Lowery and Linda Darnell on Location --- Darnell Would Later Be Replaced




Fonda at one point recites carnage of a battle Ford meant to shoot, but didn't for time and budgetary reasons. The telling is explicit beyond what could have been shown on screen ("Heads blowed half-off" --- that sort of thing). It was effective shorthand on Ford's part, and what savings ... Monogram could have used his kind of economy. For combat approximating what Ford might have staged for Drums Along The Mohawk, there would be 1940's Northwest Passage, where King Vidor pitched violence-beyond-norm between explorers and redskins, also in color. Sinister face of Drums' enemy is John Carradine with an eye-patch and Tory sympathies. Redcoats don't show until a third act, and they're mostly at a distance. Zanuck didn't want to irk the British, knowing they'd soon enough be our wartime allies. If wilderness was indeed a last lost paradise, Ford found it at his Utah shooting site that cast/crew would remember as highlight of their professional lives. Nightly ritual of meals, entertainment overseen by Fonda, taps blown, tent sleeping, all of roughing it that was/is the Romance Of John Ford, and reason his outdoor stuff cries authenticity.






Exploitation aimed for jugulars ("treachery, massacre, torture ... into the valley where the savage Iroquois lurked!") even as outreach went to educators by way of charts picturing historical sites, these to display in school and public libraries. Fox got Drums Along The Mohawk a favored spot on the Kate Smith radio hour, with dramatization of scenes from the film. "Super-Color Photos" in a set of eight promised a "three-dimensional effect," these turning up later at paper shows and prized by collectors. Drums Along The Mohawk was back in 1947 and did $424K in domestic rentals, along with Western Union a most profitable reissue for Fox that year. Downside was new prints in black-and-white, a disappointment to viewers who remembered how lovely Drums looked in 1939-40. The film was booked to matinees through the late 40's, one of history-themed programs aimed at young people and approval of parents who wanted more enrichment for time offspring spent in theatres. Drums Along The Mohawk unfortunately stayed monochrome from then through early syndication to TV where stations broadcast full-time in B/W. Color prints generated by distributor NTA, many of these on dye-transfer stock, began showing up in the mid-60's. Here was first opportunity to see Drums Along The Mohawk in Technicolor since initial release. Most recent retrieval is a Blu-ray from Twilight Time, a better than might be expected disc, considering what Fox let happen to most of their three-strip elements. A welcome extra is a ninety-minute Ford At Fox documentary.

9 Comments:

Blogger CanadianKen said...

Delighted to see you spotlighting this one. Was very impressed when I first saw it - maybe fifteen years ago. Not just the intensity of the action, the vividness of the color and the beauty of the surroundings. But also the degree of emotional investment Ford and cast managed to create. I know I felt it and I'm sure lots of others did. Surprised to hear it wasn't a big financial success. I remember Roger Imhof's affecting supporting turn with pleasure. And - of course - Edna May Oliver marshaled those eccentric forces of hers pretty memorably. As for the leads, Fonda was perfection. And though I agree with all your points about Colbert's ostensible unsuitability for the part, I think in the end she did very very well - sheer professionalism and talent overcoming all qualms. I had no idea Linda Darnell had been attached to the film at one point. She'd have been about fifteen at the time. My feeling's that Colbert was already set to star when Fox execs realized that Darnell was far too special to waste in supporting bits. They leap-frogged her directly into leads - and wisely so. I've always thought she was amazing in 39's "Day-time Wife", fresh as a daisy and holding her own in sophisticated comedy set-ups with Ty Power and Warren William. I think Darnell's quite unique in that early on she projected such purity - madonna-like but never off-putting - in things like "Brigham Young" and "Blood and Sand". Managing to combine that quality with a lively sense of fun in "The Mark of Zorro". Yet, within a few years she'd radically - and very effectively - transformed her onscreen image. Few actresses nailed the hard-bitten, seen-it-all type as interestingly - or as vividly - as Darnell did in "Fallen Angel" and "A Letter to Three Wives". For me, she and fellow Fox star Gene Tierney deserve sky-high ratings on any list of Golden Age movie goddesses.

10:59 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

I used to see this film constantly on Saturday movie marathons in the seventies and the film was repeated so many times that I don't remember when was the first time I aw it in color. In the early days of the Fox network in Latin America, this title was rotated almost weekly along with other movies from the studio... but if you had to move for two minutes to do something you can either miss big chunks of the movie or its ending, as it happened to me quite often. I was finally able to see it complete once I got a video tape in order to appreciate it. While Claudette Colbert can be considered miscast, the same can be said of almost all of the actors in the movie giving clichéd performances including Edna May Oliver. But I actually enjoy that.

1:08 PM  
Blogger shiningcity said...

Interesting that DRUMS and the following years NORTHWEST PASSAGE were among the last major films of this period that portrayed native Americans as despicable savages. Shortly later, THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON started the trend toward noble savages, probably for unification needs of WW II.

2:19 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon recalls past viewings of DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK (Part One):


Hi John,

Another wonderful post due to your unabashed (always!) frankness. I love the line about "the taste of [blackboard] chalk" with regard to colonial times and conflicts portrayed in most movies and media. Sad, but...! There are other American eras more colorful and fascinating. (Could it have been those damn wigs the boys wore in the 1700's? Or, the fop-py clothing, albeit simultaneously sort of elegant?) And I also smiled as you tore into the topic of how tense and bleak this story really is. If anything I think that Ford's style mollifies or mitigates this a bit, as his eternally paradoxical warmth in telling a story (versus his super eccentric, semi-sadistic streak well documented) gives you the sense that the protagonists will somehow prevail. Yes, too, to the standard issue portrayal of any and all native Americans (better known as 'Injuns' in most of the 20th century, and this is no endorsement on my part) as scary and savage villains. Still, easy for me to say. Those early settlers had to be almost unbelievably bold. (Another fine film in which people we've come to know and like are suddenly just wiped out is Walter Wanger's "Canyon Passage", the 'redskins' still playing the black hats, although Ford's own Ward Bond is clearly fingered as the catalyst. Bond was amazingly versatile and personal accounts aside, one of the most underrated actors of the day in my opinion.)

3:12 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Craig Reardon:


One exception to your playful 'rule' about the early colonial times and conflicts, if I may say so, was Walt Disney's limited series "The Swamp Fox". It was all about an early American military hero, a kind of guerrilla warrior as portrayed in the story, able to disappear and reappear to the deadly consternation of the King's troops. We LOVED "The Swamp Fox" when I was a kid! Of course part of that was Disney's style, love it or hate it, and so you got a jaunty, instantly memorable jingle ("Swamp Fox, Swamp Fox, tail on his hat...nobody knows where the Swamp Fox is at!"). Corny? Well, Disney, is the way I'd put it, and again, you opt in or you opt out. I remember being very, very impressed by Leslie Nielsen in the lead role, the first time I remember seeing him in anything...unless you also include an almost contemporaneous QM show that only lasted one season, "The New Breed", a typically slick "QM Production" that had the stamp of all of the rest of them, with arresting graphics, music, casting, good scripts, everything...but success. QM had to wait for "The Fugitive" for a real slam bang hit. I not only saw, back to your subject BTW, "Drums Along the Mohawk" as a kid on TV in B&W, but it was actually shown to us in one of my history classes later on down the line, for its not-so-dubious historical/educational value. I myself can't say how 'educated' I feel having seen it! The one thing that simultaneously amused and really freaked me out (a nice, colorful phrase contributed to the language in the 1960s) was when the savages cornered Edna Mae Oliver. The poor lady's long horse face was her fortune and yet it was exploited for its ungainly and humorous aspect, but what I admired about her as a personality is that she plays a very proud and defiant woman in the story. Still, her whooping with fear and defiance as the Indians actually enter her bedroom really IS a combination of comedy and horror. I'm surprised that you didn't mention the best part in the movie, however. I never, ever forgot it, from the first TV viewing through subsequent ones. Was it in the script? I'd guess, "Probably." Of course, with the commencement of Director Worship in the '50s and '60s, Ford's going to get credit for it 'whether or not'. I'm talking about the final shot: the American flag, presumably newly invented, being passed from hand to hand all the way to the top of the fort at the end of the movie. That's such a simple and beautiful expression of unity and true patriotism (in context of this story) that it still gives me chills. And I'm not one of those who likes to see this or that faction today flapping that poor, noble flag as their personal mascot. This was different. Whether or not it's coincidental or the instruction of the screenwriter, that scene and its handling is the one I remember from the entire movie, and a not atypical brilliant coda to one of Ford's fine films.

3:13 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Three from Craig Reardon:


Ford later conceded that working for Darryl Zanuck was a symbiotic experience (if that makes sense) that he did not regret, a big concession for somebody like him. To which I'd remark, no s***, Pappy! Incidentally, in one of your illustrations you say that Robert Lowery and Linda Darnell were later replaced. I'm pretty certain that Lowery is featured decently in the final film as we know it. I know I retain an admiring impression of him being able to lift an enormous chunk of a tree that's been brought down for log making, throwing it into a fire. (Or, could've been the remains of a ruined homestead after an Indian raid; I'll have to watch it again.) Lowery was obviously a great shape! And, a good actor. As you know he later turns up as a kind of light comedy villain in John Wayne's "McClintock!" (Don't forget the exclamation point...!) I think, from an early search on the IMDB, that the poor guy died in his 50s.

Thanks for another true McElwee column. I'm never interested in movie blogs in, "The facts, just the fact's, ma'am", a la Joe Friday. I WANT to read the opinion of the blogger. I'm not fond of pipsqueaks who use the medium to trash everything, and it only recoils on them in my estimation. But, point of view? I like that; and I always like yours.

Craig

3:13 PM  
Blogger William Lund said...

I used this film in my high school U.S. Classes a few times. I felt it would give students a good feel of what it was like to live during this period of time. Unlike other Ford films of this era, it's very slow moving and a chore to get through. I think I used about 20 minute segment to get the point across. Ford's directional style and storytelling in "Grapes of Wrath" one year later was light years ahead of "Drums Along the Mohawk." It does look great in Technicolor though.

10:33 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer appreciates the use of sound in DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK:


I love the magnificent Utah locations in this picture, especially the use of live sound on those locations. The crack of an axe or the call of voices across a distance reverberate and magnifies one’s sense of the vastness of this area. Musket and rifle shots also have a unique timbre and re-echo from the hills, without the flat sameness of pre-recorded shots taken from a studio sound library.

The Indians are a formidable presence, half-naked, their heads shaved except for their forelocks, and with the powerful physiques suggesting a people living much closer to nature than the settlers. They are also cruel, and if the telling of this cruelty seems one-sided, the story being told, after all, is from the settlers’ perspective to their descendants. One of the grievances recited in the Declaration of Independence against King George III was his setting of the “merciless Indian savages” upon the inhabitants living on the frontiers, “whose known rule of warfare…is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” The Widow McKlennar’s imperious demand that a war band not only spare her life, but save her bed, seems all the more remarkable.

9:44 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon follows up regarding Robert Lowery:


The biographical material at IMDB does confirm my memory, probably of an earlier visit to the selfsame page, that Lowery died at only 58 (i.e., "in his 50s", as I think I made reference to in my response to your excellent entry about "Drums Along the Mohawk".)

Apart from "...Mohawk", he also has that nice bit at the beginning of "Mark of Zorro" ('40), a movie which for both sentimental and 'active' reasons gets taken out and watched by me regularly. The nostalgia in my case has to do with a fondly remembered opportunity to stay up late--a big rarity in my upbringing!---one Friday night to catch "Zorro" on the Late Show, back when films of this vintage appeared on major networks like CBS, if at 'odd' hours. My dad wasn't home, I seem to recall, but my mom was in my estimation the World's Greatest Movie Fan, and I enjoyed watching the thing with her, knowing or feeling that she was enjoying it just as much as I was. I remember how shocked I was to see Tyrone Power skewer Basil Rathbone, with blood and everything! It's still a great shot. It also proves that you can photograph something like this as a cutaway, at only a slightly different angle from the main skirmish, and the mind will marry the shots up so that it seems continuous. This of course, to state the not-so-obvious, disguises the fact that the break permits the effects people to rig the blood bag under Rathbone's shirt, substitute the sword blade Power is ramming "into" him (or, Power's substitute may even have been used for this one quick shot), etc, etc. It also lends itself to making a thing like that as safe as it possibly could be. ALL as opposed to trying to get it to work as the climax of a long, tiring bout of fencing with tensions high with performers and camera, effects people, even wardrobe (who would have to change the costume; the 'blood', right?)...in short, everybody invested in getting the shot right. Not the least of whom the production manager, counting the minutes that translate into dollars. Rouben Mamoulian was a fine director and I have to believe he did not get in the way of doing this right, but facilitated it. However, pros like that were MIA when I was actively involved in set effects from the '80s forward. How often did I try to argue for a cut-away approach with those guys, only to be rebuffed every time? It was an era with a self-defeating, brainwashed mindset that you mustn't cut away. Why? Editing is the ultimate special effect. It has been since the dawn of cinema. These guys called themselves directors, probably thought of themselves as filmmakers. Yeah, as long as they had the art director's storyboards clenched in their terrified fists. And then they often abandoned those! "No cut-aways!" Yeah, easy for those guys to say. I heard it over and over again: "I don't want to cut!" They also didn't want to work, or think, or design, or really make movies. The mechanical results prove it. I wish you'd do a blog collecting some of the jaundiced opinions of actors (always the professionals that people believe, when they talk about anything from rearing children to politics to movie making!) of most of the directors they worked with. Sometimes they really lift my spirits as a few of the old pros testified they got nothing but interference or just plain piffle from the guy with the megaphone. I know Cagney said of William Keighly, for one, that he was a 'fake' (not that word, but word to that effect.) Many confessed they'd spent most of their careers "directing themselves". No input worth considering. As they say today..."me, too". Of course, the testimony of a 'technical' person is always suspect, for some reason, or worse, disregarded as petty and irrelevant. I think it's relevant! The pieces all go toward making up the whole.

Craig

2:30 PM  

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