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Monday, August 23, 2021

Technicolorful Hill Folk


Paramount's Lost World Of Americana


Hillbilly dramas can weigh heavy minus proper mood to watch, as I've found in past efforts to engage The Shepherd of The Hills, a 1941 Technicolor go at isolated life among mountain folk. Maybe harsh depiction of the people and life strikes close to the bone (or do I need balm of an "Ozark Love Charm," itself a chicken bone left at doorways as stimulant to romance, said Paramount publicity). Hill-dwellers brew illegal whiskey and shoot it out with revenuers, not in fun ways Robert Mitchum later would on Thunder Road. Initial Blu-Ray offering was from France, and welcome leap to full-on quality versus compromised circumstance of TV (lately there are broadcasts on Retro Plex and/or Cinemax Westerns in HD) and a domestic DVD that wasn't half bad, but not so vibrant as this. There were burned in French subtitles, an irritant, but so far to the bottom of the image that they barely registered, at least on my screen. Whatever the limp, Shepherd is joy to see pin-sharp and hue-enhanced, the way we wish all Technicolor from the 40's could survive. Surprise for watching the French, with its subtitles, is the 1941 show coming off like an American art movie where it's Euros left to read words off the screen and realize values of design and color as practiced by US filmmakers. So this is how budding auteurists were obliged to see Shepherd of the Hills a first time in France, absorbing art from us before we bowed to art from them, strong visual-at-least argument to put us equal to imports, as moments of Shepherd are stunning in effect, no less so an impactful story it tells. Result is Shepherd of the Hills no longer a forced march, as thanks to French-inflected telling, I finally "get" it. But never mind R-2 experiment, for Kino tenders now a domestic Blu-Ray, so all is right with this one-of-a-backwoods-kind. 



The hillbilly as hard case is fair-accurate, I suppose, but still one needs hard bark for blood oaths, generalized feuding, and bad ends for mountain dwellers given to superstition that all knows us of primitive up-bring to be ruled by. Character players are off-type to memorable result. Surely Beulah Bondi, Marc Lawrence, others, looked back on this as most rewarding work they ever were given. I met Lawrence at a paper show once and did not mention The Shepherd of the Hills, maybe as well because on that 1990's day he acted more like his mob character in Key Largo and sort of scared me off. These people sometimes forget that some of us really believe in their screen constructions, especially where practiced, repeated, over many decades. Shepherd is really Harry Carey's vehicle, though third-billed, and what a tribute to his enduring persona, reflective of real standing Carey had among a first, and as of 1941, succeeding generation of filmgoers. John Wayne registers as mere boy beside him despite Duke having plied at movies himself for nearly fifteen years by then. Stagecoach was a start, but it was still a while before Wayne truly found his niche at leads. He is offscreen for much of The Shepherd of The Hills, the piece an ensemble and presumed adhere to the novel from which it derived. Henry Hathaway directs, and you could say he followed John Ford's Stagecoach and The Long Voyage Home example at not letting all action revolve around Wayne's character. Carey as elder spokesman and mover of events gives The Shepherd of The Hills an integrity it might have missed had narrative chips been pushed Wayne's way. Fans today might want more of him, but 1941 viewership were fully engaged by known/loved authority that was Harry Carey, The Shepherd of The Hills a ringing statement of what he stood for to a great many people.    



Hill folk invariably took hard licks from Hollywood. They were as remote, it seemed, as a Third World within our own, being law unto selves, driven by violence and muddle notions of right/wrong. Worse, they were not habitual moviegoers, so films could smite freely where extreme rustics were dramatized. Other hillbillies, reconstructed enough to at least wear shoes and pay ways into rural theatres, could embrace the libel and feel superior to brethren deeper absorbed by wilderness. It took a Trader Horn to venture too far up mountains, and yet they had exotic appeal, especially where represented by Betty Field as a way-back-to-nature goddess not far removed from natives we looked at in travelogues. The Shepherd of The Hills had a reissue in 1955 with new Technicolor prints on safety stock. There were 10,641 bookings and $319K in domestic rentals, probably thanks to John Wayne being there. Paramount might have kept it in profitable circulation for years more, at least in NC and similar sites, but I found no theatrical runs into the 60/70's, just television, many of broadcasts black-and-white, a refutation of much that was good about The Shepherd of The Hills.

6 Comments:

Blogger Filmfanman said...

I've always liked films in which John Wayne plays a supporting role; his later ensemble parts in the "spot the star" epics of the sixties were pretty good too when considered apart from the bloat and excess that sometimes mars those later films.

8:46 AM  
Blogger antoniod said...

At least one commentator had a big problem with the film making sympathetic characters from the book unsympathetic. Betty Field sure went to pot later!

3:17 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Stix Nix Hix Pix?

4:25 PM  
Blogger Robert Matzen said...

I had a Marc Laurence moment in Charlotte--but mine was with Victor Jory. I had seen Dodge City one too many times and expected Jory would Yancy-style pull out his whip at any moment.

10:01 AM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

This is really an outstanding film, and is also a testament to typecasting done right. Not a false note in the entire group.

1:25 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

DB: I was also thinking of that Variety headline, though I think it was actually "Stix Nix Hick Pix." When James Cagney read the headline in "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and explained it to a couple of young fans, I think it was rendered as "Hix." Too bad Variety's current editors are discouraging use of its famous "slanguage."

9:16 PM  

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