The screen credit always read James Stewart, yet the people in the audience always called the actor "Jimmy". Jimmy was like an old pal they had watched for years, first angling for his spot in Hollywood at MGM then speaking for what is good in all of us with his Oscar-nominated performance in Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Then there was the war, where Jimmy the flyer was an instructor and flew combat missions in Europe, become a Colonel by the end. When he retired from the Air Force Reserve in 1959 he was a brigadier general. After the war, like other actors, and directors like Frank Capra (It's a Wonderful Life), Jimmy took control of his own career.
Jimmy Stewart's film career in the 1950s is a model of versatility and success that any actor would be proud to claim. In 1950 he played Elwood P. Dowd in the screen version of Mary Chase's Pulitzer Prize winning play Harvey and found a role he could return to in future on the stage. At the end of the decade he was Oscar-nominated for the Otto Preminger directed courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder. In between there were three biographies, The Stratton Story and The Glenn Miller Story, both co-starring June Allyson and The Spirit of St. Louis. His collaboration with Hitchcock which began with 1948s Rope, continued with Rear Window, Vertigo and The Man Who Knew Too Much. There were thrillers, romance, dramas, and he even got to be a clown in The Greatest Show on Earth. Best of all there were westerns. Jimmy Stewart made eight films with director Anthony Mann and five of them are among the best westerns of the 1950s, Winchester '73, The Naked Spur, The Far Country, The Man from Laramie, and Bend of the River.
Bend of the River is my movie. We all have one. The movie we reach for when a cold is coming on. Not the flu or anything major, but a cold that entitles you to pampering while foregoing a trip to the ER. You snuggle on the couch under a mound of blankets with tissue at your side while obliging family members bring you classes of water, cups of soup and toast with the crusts cut off. You watch the movie that comforts you right down to your fluffy slippers. Life is good.
"How many bad guys have to bite the dust before you are comforted?"
- Janet Hall, concerned daughter
Screenwriter Bordon Chase had been working in Hollywood since his first novel Sand Hog was adapted for Raoul Walsh's 1935 film Under Pressure. Mysteries, war pictures and westerns make up the bulk of Chase's work, with his westerns being true classics of the genre such as Red River, Man Without a Star, Winchester '73 and The Man from Colorado. I find his best films to be emotionally epic, and this is how Bend of the River, adapted from William Gulick's novel Bend of the Snake, struck me when I first saw it over 40 years ago, and strikes me again on my many re-watches.
Julie Adams, James Stewart
Jimmy Stewart plays Glyn McLyntock, leader of a wagon train taking settlers to the Oregon territory. Glyn has a past as a border raider during the Civil War, a past he wants to forget. He's hoping to have a new beginning with these brave settlers, particularly with lovely Julie Adams playing Laura Baile. On a scouting expedition Glyn saves the life of Emerson Cole played by Arthur Kennedy. Cole has angered some vigilantes and he and Glyn recognize each other for the bad men they have been. Cole is willing to string along with the wagon train until something better turns up or Laura Baile casts an eye in his direction. Cole knows he owes Glyn, but his allegiance is strictly self-serving.
The settlers led by Jay C. Flippen as Jeremy Baile, father of Laura and younger sister Marjie played by Lori Nelson, are greeted warmly in Portland purchasing the supplies which will carry them through the winter. Merchant Tom Hendricks played by Howard Petrie will see that the supplies are shipped in time. The approaching winter causes concern when the supplies have not arrived as promised so Glyn and Jeremy return to Portland to check on their stock and on Laura. Laura had been wounded in an Indian attack and had been recuperating in Portland.
Rock Hudson, Arthur Kennedy, James Stewart
The intervening months had seen a gold strike and the countryside was filling up with optimistic miners who needed supplies and were willing to pay much more than top dollar. Hendricks is holding back the settler's necessaries for all the money he can get. Meanwhile, Emerson Cole is running a gambler's paradise with Laura and with a handsome young gunman named Trey Wilson played by Rock Hudson. This was a breakout role for Rock who proved himself an appealing screen personality. Glyn hires some men at the dock to load the settler's goods on a paddle wheel run by Cap'n Mello played by Chubby Johnson and Adam played by Stepin Fetchit. It is a messy situation and Glyn can't get away cleanly as they are followed up river by Hendricks and a gang.
Arthur Kennedy, Harry Morgan, Royal Dano
Glyn counts Cole and Trey as his partners in the dangerous enterprise, but the men who were basically shanghaied from the dock are not satisfied with the situation. Jack Lambert, Harry Morgan and Royal Dano are among the crew who decide to turn on Glyn, hijack the goods and sell them to the miners. As masterminds, they fall a little short of their scheme, but Emerson Cole is ahead of them and were it not for Laura's presence, Glyn would be dead. Instead, he is left to die in the wilderness.
James Stewart as Glyn McLyntock
"You'll be seeing me. You'll be seeing me. Everytime you bed down for the night, you'll look back to the darkness and wonder if I'm there. And some night, I will be. You'll be seeing me!"
The twists and turns of Glyn's redemption make for riveting viewing. Bend of the River was the second Jimmy Stewart-Anthony Mann western following Winchester '73. It was filmed in gorgeous Technicolor by cinematographer Irving Glassberg and has an appropriate stirring score by six time Oscar nominee Hans Salter. Location filming in Oregon lends a sense of the treachery of the land and of the people. You can feel the crisp breeze, the mundane hazards of rocks and mud, and be awestruck by the vistas of rivers and mountains.
A perilous journey.
The story of Bend of the River is compelling and filled with action. Glyn's search for a new life is heartbreakingly convincing in the hands of Jimmy Stewart, who was giving the public a look at the new post-war actor, a man of darker shades. Arthur Kennedy is a charming skunk as Emerson Cole. Whether he is playing a sweetheart or a villain, he is an actor that it is impossible to ignore.
Chubby Johnson's long screen career in movies and on TV was just beginning. Oldtimer J.C. Flippen still had some interesting roles to play, even into the 60s. Until a couple of late life roles in the 70s in a Moms Mabley comedy and Won Ton Ton the Dog Who Saved Hollywood, this year would mark the end of the movie road for Stepin Fetchit. His role in Bend of the River did not rely on much of the traditional comic schtick for which he is most remembered. Rock Hudson staked his claim in the star lottery. In future years, certain cast members would become famous for TV roles, Harry Morgan for December Bride, Pete and Gladys, Dragnet and M*A*S*H, and Frances Bavier for The Andy Griffith Show. In the 1970s Julie Adams would play Jimmy Stewart's wife in The Jimmy Stewart Show, but for now it was 1952. The 1950s, Jimmy's decade, was just beginning.