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Thursday, September 10, 2020

Good Citizenship Rides West


Bend Of The River (1952) To Bring Out the Civilized in All Of Us

Sensed for the first time a mushy center to this second Stewart-Mann western, as though jagged edge of Winchester ’73 had been smoothed, U-I not forgetting there was a family audience to be catered to with big-scale, star-lit outdoors. Universal liked aroma of much mass-as-possible attendance to biggest commitment shows, toward which they applied major, plus hopeful, names (James Stewart the scout leader to Julia Adams, Rock Hudson, Lori Nelson, more), glory of nature shooting to grease premieres where action was shot or took place, a blueprint applied a following year to The Mississippi Gambler. All this made necessary a safer approach to genre conventions than edgy Winchester '73, which was black-and-white and presented Stewart as meaner at times than villainy he thwarted. Jim was still dogged by Jimmy no matter PTSD undercurrent. Watchers were put off balance, thrillingly so, by a star who “lost it” now and then to fear or rage, and this being stuff moderns cling to, we wonder if the war upended Stewart enough to serrate his folksy bearing for good. Trouble was him not wanting to give that up, not for keeps anyway, agent and exec voices bidding him to lighten up as, after all, there were children watching.

There is nothing so tedious in movies than the reformed outlaw, and that is the part James Stewart has here. He is one-time “border raider” Glyn McLyntock, stood around a punch bowl and four-layer cake trying to be worthy of benign influence Jay C. Flippen, whose wife is “Aunt Bee” of later and insufferable TV presence, theirs a wagon train I’d gladly forfeit to Shoshones early on, rather than brief raiding, and disposal, quick as an arrow is shot into Julie Adams. We imagine the pioneer bunch setting up Rotary Clubs all through the West, 1952 gone back to make better citizenry of 1852. Stewart “running away” from his past and in thrall to such righteous lot is less disagreeable than fact we are meant to see things their way, Glyn having to earn membership by defeating cheerful outlaw Arthur Kennedy, latter more likeable and primary interest for me. Stewart might, should, have played Kennedy’s part were he not bound up by responsibility conferred by mixed blessing of industry standing, price of which is a part less colorful, JS the killjoy too for blunting violence we expect of westerns. A telling scene has “Emerson Cole” (Kennedy) shooting to death a crook gambler after sensitive “Trey Wilson” (Rock Hudson) merely wings him, Cole pointing out that Wilson is fast, but “too soft.” We like the moment, at least till Stewart as McLyntock denounces Cole for his initiative. The two characters are uneasy allies for a first two-thirds of the film, each saving the other’s life repeatedly, so that at the very least, both should give a pass whatever comes up. Cole even spares McLyntock after going “bad” via theft of supply wagons en route to Rotarians, a more than generous gesture, especially what with McLyntock swearing he’ll one day get even. Why not let pragmatic Cole reply, “Oh, if that’s how it is, goodbye …,” and BANG. Movies do have certain obligations to common sense, Bend of the River bending a few to hold advantage for the civic minded.

Glyn arranges a turkey shoot to thin the herd of do-badders. At this, he is successful, ground littered with dead and dying. Survivor heavies flee, Trey/Hudson shooting still, his action met with Glyn/Stewart disapproval. When Trey asks why not finish them off, Glyn gives with the deathless and forever obnoxious movie line, “Well, if you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you,” words meant to cool not only Trey’s bloodlust, but ours as well. Upright Jay C. Flippen says a same later to Kennedy/Cole and gets slapped silly for the affront, Cole speaking for those of us who don’t like our savage breasts soothed. That’s enough, viewers, we are civilized after all, says voice of reason that is Universal overseeing. Stewart characters had a habit of preaching at those who went past bounds he set. Audie Murphy got much dosage in Night Passage. Even Dean Martin, years later in Bandolero, took a tut-tut from big brother Jim, this well after spaghetti servers washed moral rectitude off western plates, leaving it to television where standard/practices still prevailed. Not that I altogether blame Stewart for hewing to personal notions of right/wrong, but it would date him. Contempo-vet John Wayne could stay fresh a little longer by not pretending to fight fair once pushed, his extended stay in westerns the reward.

When Bend of the River is good, it is splendid. Borden Chase screen-wrote, he of past Red River and Winchester ’73. I envision Bend as lots tougher before Universal applied gentler hands. Director Anthony Mann had less sugar in oatmeal that was his RKO and even MGM thrill/actioners. River captain Chubby Johnson repeats ... and repeats “I should have stayed on the Mississippi,” and we wish he had. There also is Stepin Fetchit, yes Stepin Fetchit, and remember this is 1952. I expected Will Rogers to walk in and reclaim him on behalf of the 30’s. Still, there is a nice walkaway Chubby and Step share that reminded me of Bogey/Bogie and Claude Rains in Casablanca. Interesting depart from norm takes Stewart/Glyn out of running for either of femmes present, Julie Adams because she beds down early with Kennedy/Cole, Lori Nelson because she finds Jim “elderly” and prefers newer-minted Trey/Hudson. Harry Morgan, Jack Lambert, and Royal Dano are slimy back-shooters along for the River ride, them for vinegar to keep the show in overall plus category. I knock aspects of Bend of the River, but adore it just the same. Compromises too can become endearing. Was it P. Kael who said great movies are never perfect movies?

The January 1952 premiere was in Portland, situated near sites where filming took place and story was set. Such events, lasting days, were barely-working vacations for media invited from nationwide, representing papers small town and large, plus magazine, TV, radio scribes. A paradise for freeloaders, and all they need do is praise Bend of the River for print/broadcast, not a sell-out as most going in knew it was a pro job based on dollars spent and Stewart being there. He’d be committed for the whole … banquets, square-dance, and hands shook from arrival to depart, all because Jim was in for half of all profit Universal realized, his gamble being up-front fees left on tables in exchange for far greater payoff should Bend break big, as safe a bet as could be made if Winchester '73’s three-quarter million enrich to Jim was any hint. Big-time regional premieres were organizational equal to state fairs, burden of that fallen to Portland host the Broadway Theatre, a venue part of the J.J. Parker circuit, them with exhibition muscle to which industry overall seldom said no. Jack Matlack was their man in front, a multiple “Quigley Award” winner (as in always doing big-scale promoting right). There was a steamboat race for opening day, then it rained on thousands as they waited for Broadway doors to open. Whatever principals from the film who could be there were there. The real work in films was done away from cameras, a best training to act being how you handled local VIP’s and plain folk thrilled to meet anybody who hailed from Hollywood.

Local good will was a best kind to spread, it widely known that Universal left $6,000 per day with hotels hosting Bend’s company as they shot on and around Mt. Hood, a tourist mecca at all times, but never so plumped as this. Cost was worth it, in fact essential, as a public more and more insisted on natural locations for any western positing itself as something more. To break beyond the genre’s expected turnout took more, a star participant like Stewart and real snowcaps necessary to cinch crowds who would otherwise leave cowboys to indiscriminate matinee-going. A March of Civilization theme lent stature to outdoor action done big scale, one like Bend of the River not only getting into ritz theatres for longer runs, but helping Universal up-and-comers be better known toward future-larger parts, Rock Hudson and Julia Adams top-lining The Lawless Breed right after Bend of the River very much a calculated thing. Also helpful was behind-scenes segments shared with once enemy that was television, U-I making footage available to Art Baker for his You Asked For It broadcast. Trips such as that to Portland were figured to generate good will not just for Bend of the River, but for an industry that could use all of assist it could get.

William Goetz, Universal-International chief, sounded off to a gathered junket in Portland: “The motion picture industry is the only industry which consistently contributes its talent, money, and facilities to every worthwhile cause without any profit whatsoever to itself. In fact, Hollywood has become so generous to all deserving causes that these contributions have come to be taken for granted and are completely overlooked by those who seek to condemn Hollywood and its workers …” I’m guessing Goetz was referring, at least in part, to continuing HUAC hearings, these at a more-less peak in January 1952 when he gave his speech. Solidly in Goetz corner was Pete Harrison, of fiery Harrison’s Reports, who added that “Mr. Goetz’s statement should have been told, not only to the people of Portland, but to those of the entire United States. And there should be added the fact that every time the United States government wants to convey to the people of this country some educational message, the first medium whose help it seeks is the motion picture industry, which invariably puts its best forward to be of service. And what does the industry get in return? Villification.”


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

The original good bad guy was William S. Hart. I still remember the thrill I got watching HELL'S HINGES (1916) silent in 8mm on my bedroom wall in my teens. The more silent films I saw the more I wanted to see.

People stopped watching movies when they started talking. They began looking at them. There is a difference.

I watched this awhile back. Enjoyed it.

8:51 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Another film that I begin to recall more and more fondly to the point I watch it again and it slides back down the hill. James Stewart is really a bit of a shit in this.

2:27 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

This is one of the all time favorite movies that I can remember. It used to be be shown on television, including the Saturday marathons constantly since the seventies and was among the firsts to be issued on VHS.

Stewart's screen persona is used very effectively and when he turns menacing or tough like in WINCHESTER ´73 the changes are smooth and and natural.

Between the two, I prefer this one because in the first one it is very evident from almost the start where everything is going and how it is going to end. Yet, I like THE NAKED SPUR even better.

1:25 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

"CATSKILL HONEYMOON" sold out for premiere! Tell us more, please.

7:27 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

The plot and theme of this film - Bend of the River - about the overcoming of violence, hatred and lawlessness in one's past, and the need to change the attitudes and behaviors of one's past self to achieve a present and future peaceful, co-operative and lawful existence with society - is but a distorted and dim reflection of what so many American men had experienced and were yet experiencing in the five or ten years before this film was in release: the effort they needed to make to come back ( or go forward ) to live and work in a peaceful, well-ordered and civilized society; and the changes they had and yet needed to make in their attitudes and behaviors to achieve those goals, from those attitudes and behaviors they had needed previously to adopt in order to master, dominate and subdue that violent and lawless world they had known in their recent past, although that world was now physically distant from them - the world torn by the hatred and savagery of the second world war.
This film is about violent men become peaceful men. In the decade after the guns of World War 2 fell silent, this was a vital topic.

7:57 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...


From Josef Berne, erstwhile Soundies director.

Thanks to Scott MacGillivray for the link.

5:38 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Projection problems

I learned early to swiftly correct and fix projection problems.

When a 16mm print started jumping I would hit the loop with one finger resetting it at once while the film ran.

A friend who worked with me got busted for pot.

He was watching a movie in prison when it started jumping. He rose from where he was sitting, walked to the projector while the guards shouted, "SIT DOWN!". tweaked the film the way he had watched me do many times resetting it at once. The thousand or so people sitting there burst into applause and cheers.

When he got out he said, "You made me, man! From that moment on I was a hero."

7:24 AM  

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