Caftan Woman

Caftan Woman

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Classic Movie History Project Blogathon 1950 - 1952: Westerns Thrive in a New Decade


This post is part of the Classic Movie History Project blogathon hosted by Movies Silently, Once Upon a Screen and Silver Screenings, and sponsored by Flicker Alley.


Westerns have been with us since "Broncho" Billy Anderson turned his six-shooter to the camera in 1903's The Great Train Robbery.  Silent filmmakers were able to make use of ample outdoor space to provide profitable entertainment for the growing movie audience.  Young directors whose names would become cinema legends received on the job training - John Ford and William Wyler.  From serials to epics, from the grit of William S. Hart to the glitter of Tom Mix there was a western for everyone.


Sound came to the movies and with it the singing cowboy epitomized by Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, whose box office success would maintain throughout the 1940s and into television.  William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy would be a phenomenon for decades beginning in this era when shoot 'em ups for the younger trade overwhelmed more adult fare such as Three Godfathers, Jesse James, Union Pacific and Stagecoach.

John Ford's return to the western and the acclaim for Stagecoach in 1939 would set the stage for his post-war foray into the genre giving us more classics such as Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and My Darling Clementine.  William Wyler would give us The Westerner to begin the 1940s and The Big Country to end the 1950s.


The 1950s would prove to be a golden era for adult-themed westerns marked especially by the dark sensibilities of master film-noir director Anthony Mann (T-Men, Raw Deal, He Walked by Night).  The visual darkness of collaborations with artistic cinematographers would register Mann's first westerns of the decade as something new.  The psychological darkness of troublesome, threatening characters gave his films an edge.  These films harken back to such earlier pictures as William Wellman's The Ox-bow Incident and Ford's My Darling Clementine while pointing the way to a fresh expression in westerns.

Close to 300 westerns were released in the years 1950-1952.  There was still a mix of series programmers and singing cowboys for the kids, but filmmakers had discovered anew the flexibility of the western to suit different tales.  In the mid to elaborate budget area straight-forward action oriented pictures found themselves vying with a darker and psychologically complicated side to the western myth.  

The idea of the hero became more elastic and audiences became used to the good/bad man and, sometimes, the bad/good man.  Leading men such as Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott gracefully aged out of contemporary and romantic films into career expanding westerns. James Stewart, versatile as he was, had been established in the public's mind as an affable everyman.  He would turn out to be the perfect actor for the new, complicated western protagonist.  You want to trust this Stewart character, but he has a violent streak and secrets.  There is an uneasiness in his dangerous presence.



It is the films of Anthony Mann that historians point to as the game changers that kicked off the decade when westerns grew up.  Winchester '73 is a revenge tale with a Borden Chase (Red River) script and starred James Stewart leading an excellent ensemble cast.  The cinematographer was William Daniels (The Naked City), who shot Stewart in 14 films from the 1930s to the 1960s.  Winchester '73 is a beautiful example of the his art.  The black and white camera gloriously highlights the scenery and the faces of character actors from John McIntire to Jay C. Flippen as we follow the episodic story of the different people connected through the ownership of a single Winchester rifle.


Anthony Mann directed Devil's Doorway for MGM with a screenplay by Guy Trosper (Birdman of Alcatraz).  Robert Taylor stars as Lance Poole, a decorated war veteran and Native American whose life spirals out of control due to the greed of others.  Taylor gives a towering performance full of quiet dignity, pragmatism and controlled range.  The film also features an interesting character in that of a female lawyer played by Paula Raymond.  The stark mood of the film is enhanced by the cinematography of John Alton.  This would be Alton's sixth and last last collaboration with Anthony Mann that began with T-Men.



Anthony Mann's third release of 1950 is The Furies based on a novel by Niven Busch.  Barbara Stanwick, perhaps the biggest female lead in westerns at this time, is in a blood feud with her father played by Walter Huston.  The battle for control between these two strong-willed characters is the stuff of Shakespeare with no one safe from their wrath.  Victor Milner's (Cleopatra) cinematography was nominated for an Oscar.  Franz Waxman's (Rear Window) score adds to the emotional plot.


John Ford added two films to his impressive canon of westerns in 1950.  The story for Wagon Master by Frank S. Nugent (Fort Apache, The Searchers) concerns a group of Mormons traveling by wagon train to a valley purchased sight unseen.  Versatile Ward Bond stars the bombastic, yet smart, leader of the train who learns to rely on two young cowboys, Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr., in their treacherous journey.  Along the way they befriend a troupe of stranded actors and are beset by family of pure evil, The Cleggs.  Songs by Stan Jones are sung by the Sons of the Pioneers as a form of narration.  The movie has a great sense of its time and place and the perils of the journey.  Bert Glennon (Stagecoach, Drums Along the Mohawk) was the cinematographer and you can taste the dust.

For Republic Pictures John Ford made Rio Grande as part of a deal to get his long-cherished project The Quiet Man to the screen.  Victor Young created one of his best film scores for Rio Grande and there were songs by Stan Jones sung by the Sons of the Pioneers on screen.  Bert Glennon provided the gorgeous black and white cinematography.  Based on a James Warner Bellah story, Rio Grande tells the story of the reunification of a broken family and the healing of a broken country after Civil War.  John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara would appear on screen for the first time and their chemistry alone would guarantee the success of this film and The Quiet Man.



Other interesting films from 1950 include Jacques Tourneur's film version of Joe David Brown's novel Stars in My Crown.  This episodic tale is told in flashback through the memories of young Dean Stockwell, the adopted son of a Preacher played by Joel McCrea.  The town and the family overcome many challenges with the most powerful storyline that of protecting a black landowner played by Juano Hernandez from bigoted neighbours, and protecting those bigots from themselves.  Henry King directed the riveting drama The Gunfighter starring Gregory Peck in an Oscar-nominated screenplay by William Bowers (Support Your Local Sheriff!) which follows the fate of a weary gunman longing for redemption.



Westward the Women was directed by William Wellman in 1951 from a Frank Capra story and Charles Schnee (The Bad and the Beautiful) screenplay.  Robert Taylor plays a wagon train scout leading a train of women from Chicago to a California valley which landowner John McIntire envisions as a land of families.  The ensemble of actresses gives their all in this story of hardship and hope.  Lives are lost and lives are changed.  It is both a harrowing and uplifting story.  Also a 1951 release is Henry Hathaway's Rawhide.  Dudley Nichols (Stagecoach) screenplay is a character study as Susan Hayward and Tyrone Power battle a gang of thieves holding them hostage at a way station as part of their plan to steal a gold shipment.




Nominated for Best Picture in 1952, High Noon is a film rich in drama and fine performances and a western seething with tension and atmosphere.  If you read it as an allegory for the McCarthy political witch hunts (see 1954s Silver Lode) it only adds to the pleasure of your viewing.  Gary Cooper won an Oscar as Will Kane, a newly-married sheriff who learns of the release from prison of a man who has sworn to kill him.  The criminal will arrive in town at high noon.  Once the citizens helped put the crook away, but a few years of relative calm have inured them to taking action.  Abandoned by former friends and misunderstood by his new wife, Kane is left to deal with the threats on his own.  

Adult audiences flocked to the new westerns built with them in mind, critics sat up at took notice at this revolution and even those who handed out awards began to look at westerns differently.  High Noon was nominated for 7 Oscars and won 4.  The film won 4 Golden Globes out of 5 nominations.  Fred Zinnemann was nominated by the Director's Guild of America, and the New York Film Critics Circle Award cited High Noon as Best Film and Zinnemann Best Director.  The Academy nominated The Gunfighter for Best writing, motion picture story and The Furies for Best cinematography, black and white.

Westerns are a malleable genre allowing for versatility in the stories they tell, reflecting history or current times.  Social and political ills (The Ox-Bow Incident) can be brought forward as a story; ideas and themes elaborated in the mythology.  All of the crafts which come together to create a film are on display at their best in Hollywood's classic westerns.  You will find glorious film scores, outstanding performances, thoughtful scripts and sure direction.  If you have something to say or a certain way you want to say it, it can be told as a western - in the wide open spaces or the confines of a town, as a brooding noir or a sly comedy, with stark close-ups or a song.  The 1950s provided audiences with a great variety of high-quality westerns that stand the test of time.  There was room for all kinds of stories for all kinds of people in the classic westerns of this period.

   

17 comments:

  1. HIGH NOON is gonna be one of my outdoor movies this summer. Looking forward to seeing it on a big screen (even if it won't be 35mm).

    I never thought of westerns as career-extenders before. I can't think of a modern analogue for that, either. Interesting.

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    1. My dad first saw "High Noon" in Germany when he was in the Army. He had to sit in the cheap seats down front, and it felt like a very long walk. However, the movie remained a favourite and I find it, to this day, incredibly watchable.

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  2. I love this era of Westerns, with the complex protagonist. They are so tense and keep you riveted. Your description of James Stewart in some of these films is perfect.

    Two movies you mentioned, which I'm going to watch for, are Stars in My Crown and Silver Lode. Thanks!

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    1. Thanks. Both are terrific.

      Joel McCrea and director Jacques Tourneur both cited "Stars on My Crown" as a favourite.

      In "Silver Lode", the bad guy is "McCarty" - just in case we don't get the witch hunt comparison.

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  3. Really well done, CW. The only westerns I truly like are the ones made in this era - mostly for the complexity of the characters. Good stuff!

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    1. Thanks so much. So many layers to enjoy in these great films.

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  4. Great survey of a wealth of superb westerns. "Career-extenders" indeed. It was a new canvas for filmmakers, and how interesting that they could show such depth.

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    1. Yep. Give me those mature, care-worn faces under the brim of a Stetson any time.

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  5. You know, I've never really 'got' Westerns. I've seen the showstoppers (Stagecoach, High Noon) but very little else. I've just never really engaged with them. But as this - and previous posts - have proved, I've missed out. Maybe it's time!!
    (Vicki from GirlsDoFilm, it won't let me comment as 'myself')

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    1. I don't get all these computer ticks that don't let us do things we normally can do. They are sent to try our patience. I dig that old name though.

      A little mining through the westerns of the 50s will provide some gems.

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  6. I think the birth of the "Adult Western" in the 1950s was one of the turning points in American cinema. The Western genre would never be the same again and it would feed into the cynicism of the 1960s (THE WILD BUNCH) and the moral ambiguities of the Spaghetti Western.

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    1. Yes, each successive trend jumps off from what came before. And when you start from the 50s westerns you are, as they say, standing on the shoulders of giants.

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  7. Great review of the Western genre in this era Caftan Woman. As you say, it is a flexible type of film, and so it shows, not only the aspirations and fears of the period, but also the limits and mandates of the studios and filmmakers. The early 50s did tend to be more realistic, a consequence, like film noir, of the effects of the war. High Noon which you highlight so well, gives little comfort to the audience.

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  8. Great review of the Western genre in this era Caftan Woman. As you say, it is a flexible type of film, and so it shows, not only the aspirations and fears of the period, but also the limits and mandates of the studios and filmmakers. The early 50s did tend to be more realistic, a consequence, like film noir, of the effects of the war. High Noon which you highlight so well, gives little comfort to the audience.

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    1. Thank you, Christian. I appreciate your thoughtful comments. Filmmakers today are no less creative, but there's something wonderful about the studio system in that the means to create were plentiful and the choice so varied.

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  9. Do I see a kind of noir western tendency? It's something to think about...
    Woman, this is one of the best blog posts you've written. I'm impressed and happy I came here to read it!
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Kisses!
    Le

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    1. Thank you. Your kind words mean so much.

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