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Thursday, July 31, 2014

The 40's Epic Of The West

Red River (1948) Stays Evergreen On Blu-Ray

Shot two years ahead of release, held up for editing (troubled), lawsuits (Howard Hughes satisfying a spite), and other delays that might have portended a stiff, but Red River went on to triumph, sold boldly as third of but three to have achieved greatness --- The Covered Wagon and Cimarron being forebears. So there at least is insight as to which sagebrushers were figured a finest to '48. Nowadays you can't get Wagon or Cimarron arrested. Don't know about the rest of territories, but NC had Red River flowing through hardtop/drive-ins well into the 70's. Our Starlite encored it often, as late as '74, and whenever corn-dog lots needed a third for John Wayne all-nighters, it would invariably be Red River welcoming the dawn behind likes of Donovan's Reef or The War Wagon. Now comes RR riding out of Criterion, plus a Region Two release, on long-awaited Blu-Ray with clarity enough to taste trail dust, being the "book version" as opposed to narration from Walter Brennan, the latter being what syndication tendered for lo many years before home video and now BR supplanted same (Criterion's release offers both).

Red River for me has always been combination of perfection plus parts to bring on squirm. There is epic-ness from its opening; we figure here is a big one that will just get bigger with passage of reels, what with dialogue promise of a massive cattle drive interrupted by "border gangs," outsize Indian attacks, and inevitability of a Montgomery Clift/John Ireland showdown. That little of these happen and still Red River is good speaks well to Howard Hawks' delivering on money that lagged behind a script's ambition. A lot of Red River is talk, there being nothing wrong in that where Hawks is ventriloquist, but sometimes chat goes past our undivided attention. When man of few words Wayne walks out of scenes, it's left to Clift, Brennan, others to lay down exposition by yards. That happens later too, when characters have to explain what makes Clift's Matt Garth tick, these among deeper holes we cross over Red River. And why must Joanne Dru go on --- and on? Even Wayne can't shut her up.

For pure silly, there's nothing like Dru and company under redskin siege and her asking Clift why he's "so mad." Then she's shot clear through by a poison arrow to barest flinch reaction. Last time I checked, those things hurt, and yes, I'll forgive Hollywood being its unreal self, but this part must surely have got laffs even in forgiving '48 when they were more used to such absurdity. What really saves the enterprise is John Wayne. Hawks minus an actor this strong would come a cropper before and after Red River. Look at The Big Sky (or better, spare yourself), which is longer and as would-be epic as RR. The difference is happy-go-lucky in a most irritating sense Kirk Douglas, who shows vivid why he'd never be in Wayne's class where action heroing was the task. Did Hawks try, and fail, to get Wayne for The Big Sky? By 1946, when Red River was shot, JW was poised for Top Ten placement, that being his pretty much from this show to a career's end. There is so much detail and yes, subtlety, that you'll see in his perf, now that it can be crystal-viewed. Who knew Blu-Ray would render great actors even greater? Gold age, especially B/W, work has suffered a lot for sub-standard presentation through the years.

Here's random ways Wayne excels, and just in a first Red River reel: The trail boss warns him not to leave the wagon train because he'll be "riding into trouble." Wayne gives him that look that says, You're warning me about trouble? We recognize a man who has lived with, if not gone looking for, perils in the wilderness. There were few in the action trade who could pull that expression, knowing and a little humorous, and make it stand for what would follow in a next two hours. By this stage of his career, and at age thirty-nine, Wayne had grown real authority. Look, for instance, at his eyes as Indians encircle his camp during night. The scene is played still and fairly close-up, but Wayne's head doesn't move back and forth to the sounds, just his eyes, and these become more urgent as we, and he, realize attack is imminent. Another favorite ad-libbed (?) Red River moment: Can't you keep that horse still? That Wayne underplayed for most of a career, at least until broadening slapstick infected his 60's stuff, is well-known and endorsed by ongoing acceptance of his style and continued popularity of JW's better films.

Red River Got Lots Of Play at Drive-Ins Emerging After WWII
Wayne had constructed his image as deliberately as any star borne of self-manufacture. A lot want to think he was like the image, but that was years becoming the case. JW didn't believe in "John Wayne" until weight of the icon confused even him as to what was real or faked. As of Red River, he was pure calculation and still a work in progress. Wayne took a lot of instruction from elders and used them as example. He had been raised to respect experience and so wasn't too proud to receive instruction and make helpful use of what vets could teach. Such humility paid off handsome. Wayne was early instance of a star that studied stars who'd gone before. It's known he emulated Harry Carey, but there was also Douglas Fairbanks and Buck Jones, both of whose memorabilia Wayne collected to the end of his life. A friend told me of being approached by JW for one-sheets and lobby cards on Fairbanks, one enthusiast looking to score rarities from another.


Blogger radiotelefonia said...

I have always felt, and I still do, that RED RIVER is absolutely overrated, unworthy of praise.

As a western remake for MUTINY IN THE BOUNTY is OK but lacks the quality of the original film. Seeing it more than once works against it.

The acting is almost excellent but Joanne Dru is the most ineffective and unappealing person in the cast spoiling every scene in which she appears.

Yet the biggest defect of this film is its ending; even if there were production problems and changes along the way, the finale is a monument of incompetence and mediocrity

11:06 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

Thanks, John. I didn't know that Wayne was a Fairbanks fan. I wonder if he was scanning the set for him to perhaps show up when he appeared in a bit part in one of Doug Jr.'s films, Life of Jimmy Dolan.

One of the things about Red River that has irked me is the amount of screen time devoted to the relationship between Monty Clift and Joanne Dru.

Quite frankly, I don't much care about Dru's character and whether she does or doesn't get Monty to like her.

It's Clift's relationship with stern father figure Wayne that is the emotional centrepiece of the film. As well as, of course, Wayne's perception of his "son's" betrayal.

The Duke gave one of the great film performances in Red River. Having him off screen for a little while is okay, but having him missing as much as he is, with all those Clift-Dru slow flirtations with one another, will they or won't they do it, is a source of considerable annoyance to me.

Red River is still one of the great classics anyway, in spite of all that Dru-foolery going on.

11:24 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

I have nothing to add, you've said it for me too. Wayne is great, the rock this movie stands on, but otherwise it's a flabby mess. With Shane and High Noon as the trilogy of overrated postwar westerns which hog the spotlight from much better, tougher, tighter movies like Winchester 73, Seven Men From Now, etc.

11:25 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

And a point about Wayne emulating older stars-- I've always thought that what got him some of his start was a resemblance to Tom Mix. Not close enough that it was obvious, but they were built pretty similarly, big and square and yet somehow lean and rangy, in a way you wouldn't say Richard Dix was, say. Check out this pic of Mix that could almost be Wayne at first glance:

Wayne was to Mix what Janet Gaynor was to Mary Pickford, in a sense-- the new model in the same archetypal line.

11:34 AM  
Blogger Mark Mayerson said...

Some thoughts on Red River.

I love the male chorus during the opening scenes of the film. It's very effective, yet nobody was influenced by it that I know.

If you think Dru talks too much, I think you have to blame Hawks. He did the same thing with Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings and Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo. Somehow, Bacall escaped this in her two films, and I think that she comes off better as a result.

As for the arrow that hits Dru and her non-reaction, again I think it's what Hawks wanted. He had to show her tough here so that when she meets Wayne later in the film we believe that she stays calm during the confrontation and that she could shoot Wayne.

The still you posted with Clift and Dru appears to come from after the fight with Wayne based on the scar on Clift's cheek. Was it just a publicity still or is it from a scene no longer in the film?

I want to praise Harry Carey Sr. for his role. There's an enormous amount of warmth that Carey brings and his speech about there being three times in a man's life when he's entitled to howl at the moon is great dialogue. I'm surprised it isn't quoted more often.

Yes, the ending doesn't work. It's a major letdown. But every time I get a glimpse of this film, I get sucked in because I love the characters, including Dru, so much.

And I haven't even mentioned Walter Brennan, Hank Worden, Noah Beery, Jr. or Colleen Gray. It's a shame that Hawks never worked with her again. Her opening scenes with Wayne are very powerful.

3:48 PM  

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