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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Weekend Marquee --- The Gunfighter

It wasn’t just television, the suburbs, and divested theatres that pulled Hollywood down after the war. People were sick of atrophied formulas, especially westerns. Jack Warner referred to ones his studio did as shit-kickers. Fresh coatings in noir paint weren’t long before chipping. Psychological complications slowed action further. What was left of the larger audience still wanted westerns to move. Writers panned for that elusive dust of something new to introduce into frontier vocabularies. Andre De Toth was one such prospector looking to transfuse a tired genre. He’d directed the fine and offbeat Ramrod in 1948, and was now teamed with scribe William Bowers to develop The Gunfighter, a spec story recognized right off as worthy of fast tracking toward production. How it came to sell and for how much depends on whose late-in-life interview you’re reading. Many fathers come to claim classics once born and labeled. De Toth would say that he, in collaboration with Bowers, wrote The Gunfighter for Gary Cooper. Bowers recalled (in The Screenwriter Looks At The Screenwriter, published 1972) doing the script with John Wayne in mind, neglecting to mention De Toth’s involvement (and then producer Nunnally Johnson was said to have largely rewritten both men's work). That interview having taken place when Wayne’s politics were way out of fashion, Bowers portrays him as the bull-in-a-china-shop would-be bargain purchaser of The Gunfighter, then entitled The Big Gun. Wayne had offered $10,000 for the story. Bowers held out and claimed to have eventually got $70,000 from 20th Fox (records from their legal department indicate the purchase price was $30,000). Interviewer William Froug said Wayne never got over the loss and would twenty years later drunkenly refer to Bowers as a sonofabitch. The actor’s frustration was understandable. How many really good western scripts crossed Wayne’s desk in a given year, or decade, for that matter? Parting company with The Gunfighter to do The Fighting Kentuckian would be high frustration for any actor, let alone one as aggressive and ambitious as Wayne.

Gregory Peck was that skinny schmuck in Wayne’s estimation, but to paying fans mostly in bobby-sox, he was dreamy personified and object of careful studio handling. The alleged shock and boxoffice consequence of a mustache he wore in The Gunfighter was myth built upon casual remarks Darryl Zanuck and other Fox executives made after viewing an already completed picture. If anything, Zanuck recognized a western possibly too good for its target audience. It’s a Remington, he told director Henry King (shown here with Peck and again with actress Helen Westcott), but coming from a practiced hand at playing to masses, this was not necessarily a complement. If anything, the mustache was symptomatic of a greater problem. It is unquestionably a minor classic, (said Zanuck) but I really believe that it violates so many true western traditions that it goes over the heads of the type of people who patronize westerns, and there are not enough of the others to give us the top business we anticipated. Killing off Peck at the finish might have been avoided for the good of all. Patrons said so (by the hundreds) when ushers inquired during the NYC Roxy run, and yes, the mustache did bother women and young girls. He’d been grizzled for much of Fox’s previous Yellow Sky (not half the picture that "The Gunfighter" is, said DFZ), but on that occasion, Peck’s character took more initiative and got the girl besides, despite an outlaw past not unlike Jimmie Ringo’s. Fox tried merchandising The Gunfighter as something extraordinary among westerns. The trailer depicts actress Gene Tierney exiting a private run to read cue carded raves (a bold and startling departure from the conventional), while ads embraced downbeat content and a morose lead character who’d lived by his guns … too long! The Gunfighter was among Hollywood’s first to chart an end for a frontier so far the site of optimistic empire building. It would soon enough morph into a cemetery waiting to claim freebooters who’d outlived their usefulness. The Gunfighter is cited by many as the non-political superior of High Noon, but it’s also an admonishment to those Jimmie Ringos home from the war to put aside arms and embrace their social and civic responsibilities.

You could see Ringo coming at the end of Peck’s last western, Yellow Sky. His bank robbing gang leader is revealed to have been a church-going scion of good family waiting for the right woman to settle him down. Indeed, Anne Baxter’s prairie hellcat (raised by apaches!) escorts his return to selfsame bank for purposes of giving back gains ill gotten during the first reel. By the fade, he’s done all but join the Jaycees and apply for a position at the teller’s window. Men were men on the prewar frontier. Errol Flynn and sidekicks broke trails and heads in things like Dodge City because there was a West to be won and heroes needed to travel light. Jimmie Ringo’s mistake was less the men he’d killed than the wife and child he’d left behind. We’d won the big fight, and now it was time for post-warriors to get busy mowing the grass (lone wolf James Stewart would learn to play community ball as well in 1955’s The Far Country). The town Ringo comes back to was more like the one I grew up in than depictions I’ve seen of western burgs. It’s a woman’s world and men-folk are good and tamed. No wonder Jimmie has to die. A bright-eyed small rancher sharing one drink with the former badman limits his intake for fear of reprisals from the wife back home, a situation apron-clad barkeep Karl Malden applauds. Ringo returns to a happily gelded community so emasculated as to allow fuzz-faced teenaged bully Skip Homeier to cow its male population. Little boys in the street are spanked home by mommies lest they follow Ringo’s sorry example, and even one-time toughest man in the West Millard Mitchell (as Jimmy’s ex-partner in crime) mediates on behalf of the Ladies Auxiliary. Ringo’s bad end is a conclusion foregone by societal edicts reflective more of 1950 than 1880. Good as he is, Peck may have been too much the gray flannel man for this commission. John Wayne would have made a more convincing bad-ass trying to come in from the cold, offering a better sense of just what Ringo had given up and was trying now to regain. Peck starts out and remains so reasonable as to make me wonder just how desperate an hombre he could ever have been. Might his Ringo have been as happy pushing that lawn mower all along?

The Gunfighter was a hit, especially in the context of Fox’s bombs away 1950 season. Its pressbook offered ad mats reading Movies Are Better Than Ever!, an industry co-op measure of desperation brought on by televisions Dad was hauling into those suburban family rooms. Fox was having enough trouble breaking even with once thought to be sure-fire product. Betty Grable musicals were nearly played out and the company’s biggest profit getter was Clifton Webb. The breakdown of Fox postwar/pre-Cinemascope money westerns finds Broken Arrow at the top with gains of $1.4 million. Yellow Sky is at number two with $1.2 million in the black. Rawhide took $704,000 in profits. The Gunfighter earned $1.8 million in domestic rentals against a negative cost of $1.2. There were foreign rentals of $805,000 and eventual profits of $464,000, making The Gunfighter one of the better earners in a year otherwise awash in red ink (over a dozen 1950 Fox releases lost money --- The Black Rose, Night and The City, and Under My Skin were each down in excess of a million). Fox had an aggressive reissue program. Bookers in the field were expected to bring home contracts for so-called Encore Triumphs. The company published each man’s sales figure per quarter, and competition was high for bonuses realized from not only first-runs, but oldies and short subjects. The Gunfighter was dating again in 1953 with fresh paper and new prints. There was $288,000 in additional domestic rentals and $83,000 more foreign. Profits this time came to $271,000. This combined with earlier gains put The Gunfighter into a solidly positive column on Fox ledgers.


Blogger radiotelefonia said...

Great post and quite a great film! It took me years until I was able to watch this film in Argentina. The frustration was bigger because a lot has been written about it, although not in the way of your post.

When the film was finally going to be published in VHS, a cable channel air it (with no commercials and no TV logos, but with Spanish subtitles) I was there taping it.

The title in Spain is a translation of the original but in Latin America it is FIEBRE DE SANGRE (Blood fever).

Check out this posters from Spain (it seems that it was distributed by 20th Century Fox and... RKO!) and Germany. In one of them Gregory Peck is shaved!:

1:45 AM  
Blogger Vanwall said...

I always liked Peck and Jimmy Stewart in westerns much more so than Wayne. I don't think Wayne could've brought anything to the table for "The Gunfighter" - Peck's nervy performance was much more cerebral and ambiguous than anything Wayne could've offered at that point, IMO - his apotheosis in "The Searchers" was still fairly far off in acting terms, and I think "The Gunfighter" needed an actor that wasn't that bull mentioned earlier. I bet the audience for westerns was much more male than female, tho - bobby-soxers? Only if dragged there.

The most jarring was Skip Homeier's punk cowboy act - in a real life town back then he'd've prolly been shot dead ten times over by no-BS-Takers before Ringo ever came back to town. I always liked Millard Mitchell, and he gave an intelligent performance, but nobody will ever top Robert Ryan's end-of-the-line sheriff in "The Lawman". You're right about how clean that burg was - smell-o-vision would've prolly given us the flowers growing out front, rather than the horse muffins, and I was always amused by the lack of mustaches in westerns pretty much right into the late '60s - early '70s - pictures from the real period they were attempting to recreate show some mighty fine 'staches and beards.
I think there was a sea change just over the horizon for westerns, and "The Gunfighter" was a harbinger of that, a little, which would be good thing. I suppose you could read a little swords into plowshares there, just as in "Yellow Sky", but it was such a nice place to live, now all the excitement was sucked out of that town. Sure.

That said, I liked "Yellow Sky" a helluva lot, at least right up to the sappy ending anyway, for it's more adult take on sexual attraction, for most of the film anyway, than H'wood usually allowed in westerns, and it's sheer brazeness as it laid out pretty plainly how situational the old west was. Money and sex were plainly big motivators back then and good western novelists like Haycox weren't shy about it, even in the thirties - his "Trouble Shooter", later eviscerated and made into "Union Pacific" with Joel McCrea, was as about real as it got, and in addition to being much more elegiac and somber than H'wood would stand for, it wasn't shy about how women got along in much of the west. Good and bad were always relative terms, but not many westerns were interested in the sweaty details back then. Plus, the scene where Peck steals up on Anne Baxter at night in the corral for kiss - her subtle facial expressions were amazing.

2:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How about Zanucks' big-prestige film of that year -- and the one that took home all the trophies --"All About Eve"?

9:54 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Greetings R.J. --- "All About Eve" was one of Fox's profit pictures in an otherwise bad year. There were 2.7 million in domestic rentals against a negative cost of 1.4 million, and foreign rentals were 1.5 million. Eventual profit was 1.1 million.

Radiotelefonia --- Thanks for these images of foreign "Gunfighter" posters. I'd never seen any of these before!

Really liked your comments, Vanwall. That scene with Peck and Anne Baxter in the corral was pretty amazing, and must have given teenagers quite a thrill in 1948.

7:01 AM  
Blogger Hans Gruber said...


"It was distributed by 20th Century Fox and... RKO!". That was because Fox and RKO shared distribution facilities in Spain in the early 50´s, as Warners and Fox do today in Argentina.

Also, check the pristine DVD from Fox.

With "El Cid" and "The Fall of Roman Empire", "Winchester '73", "The Naked Spur", "Bend of the River", "The Far Country" and "The Man From Laramie" out on DVD, this seems to be Anthony Mann´s year. Hope to celebrate some other directors like Henry King, Allan Dwan, André De Toth and a personal fav - King Vidor.

9:55 PM  
Blogger The Siren said...

Great post about one of my all-time top 10 westerns. I'd pick this, not Atticus, as Peck's best performance, and I agree with Vanwall that at the time Wayne lacked the contemplative quality that this character needed. (He certainly had it years later for The Shootist, however.) Peck was a limited actor but this part hit all his strengths.

9:56 PM  
Blogger Vanwall said...

I've always felt "Yellow Sky" was much more of a film noir than a western, as much of it takes place at dusk or at night, with hard, almost Expressionist shadows most of time to set the mood for maybe a dry-gulching or two at midnight. That gave the dark sexual tension between Peck, Baxter and a wonderfully horny and devious Widmark a real edge, something most westerns back then, so full of sunlight and grand expanses, lacked, just because of their pointed clarity of view as opposed to "Yellow Sky"'s shades of gray, much like real life. Even the scenes in the blazing sunlight of Death Valley had a black edge to them - the script was mean as hell to everything living thing right up to the goofy ending.

Seems to me "The Gunfighter" and other westerns with a lean and lanky Greg Peck or Jimmy Stewart or Montgomery Clift were starting to push the envelope out away from the Studio's previous efforts at fatherly cowboy figures and more towards the youth market with a hint of the outsider about 'em. After this period, whether they were altruistically pushing vets to settle down and get a life or not, they were now handcuffed to the loner, the misfit, the anti-hero if you will, and gradually had to go further and further out to meet expectations of originality. This was partially due to TV, I feel, as the turnaround in episodes was much faster than good western movie releases, and with a gestation period like bunny rabbits on amphetamines, the TV shows were evolving way faster than the Studios would ever be able to match with big-screen products.

As an aside, the westerns were also becoming much more realistic about horses, the real other half of the equation for the man of the west, not some gal waiting in the doorway for his return. The tack and saddles were less adorned, as were the riders - for a while there they resembled "Pearly Bills" on Harleys and I half-expected a guitar to fall out of every saddlebag. I noticed the new young hands looked like they sit a horse natural-like, rather than the Tom Mix-ian Showman style. Not that I think they were ready for Luke's laconic observation in "The Culpepper Cattle Company": "You don't have to put a name on something you might have to eat." That woulda freaked the kiddies out back then, but they were walking slowly down that path, nonetheless.

10:34 PM  
Blogger Thad said...

Between you and Jaime Weinman, I really need to sink $15 into seeing this picture! (It's not showing up on Netflix yet..)

4:43 PM  

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