Sunday, April 22, 2018

FAVOURITE MOVIES: Canyon Passage (1946)

Ernest Haycox (1899-1950) wrote stories filled with fascinating, multi-dimensional characters, interesting historical perspectives, and thrilling action. Popular best-sellers and magazine serials, these stories were also much prized by Hollywood. A few of those notable and familiar films from Haycox stories include Stagecoach, Union Pacific, Abilene Town, Man in the Saddle, and Bugles in the Afternoon. Ernest Pascal adapted Canyon Passage for the screen. The London born writer worked in film from 1923 to 1946. Other screenplays include As the Earth Turns, Lloyds of London, Wee Willie Winkie, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Blue Bird.

This amalgam of love triangles, frontier hardship, and entrepreneurial spirit was directed for Universal by Jacques Tourneur. His previous picture, for RKO, was the romantic melodrama Experiment Perilous, his next for that studio in 1947 would be an essential film-noir Out of the Past.

Cinematographer Edward Cronjager filmed the glorious Technicolor movie in Oregon locations that included Crater Lake National Park, Diamond Lake, and Umpqua National Forest, along with the Universal backlot. Cronjager was a six-time Oscar nominee for both his black and white, Cimarron, Sun Valley Serenade, The Pied Piper, and colour cinematography, To the Shores of Tripoli, Heaven Can Wait, Home in Indiana, and Beneath the 12-Mile Reef.  

Dana Andrews stars as Logan Stuart, an enterprising and restless man who runs a transport company employing mules and ingenuity. Money is something he wants and needs, but he doesn't worry about it, using it to get ahead or help people, as he sees fit. Brian Donlevy plays Stewart's friend George Camrose. Camrose has a need for success which is at odds with his need to gamble. George's inner conflict will lead to bad decisions and dire consequences. "I always feel lucky. That's my trouble."

Susan Hayward plays feisty Lucy Overmire, engaged to George, but more suited to Logan. More suited than the girl Logan has set his eye on. Lovely British screen star Patricia Roc plays Caroline Marsh, an immigrant living with the Dance family. The Dances are played by Andy Devine, Dorothy Peterson, and their two sons by Tad and Denny Devine. Ben Dance is a leader in the far-flung community and something of a prophet. When asked by Logan if there had been any Indian trouble, Ben responds "Well, it's their land and we're on it and they don't forget it. Things'll be alright, I reckon unless some medicine man stirs them up or some white cuss starts something."

The town of Jacksonville is hewn out of the forest and stacked unto a hillside. It is prosperous and poor, has a lawyer, a doctor, shopkeepers, and a gambling establishment. It is populated by character actors with familiar faces who know their work and do it well: Ray Teal, Lloyd Bridges, Stanley Ridges, Halliwell Hobbes, Onslow Stevens, Rose Hobart, Fay Holden, Harlan Briggs, Frank Ferguson, Chief Yowlachee. Peter Whitney and Chester Clute appear in the opening Portland segment of the movie. Logan has an interesting exchange with Whitney's clerk character, who strives for a banker's career. "A man can choose his own gods, Cornelius. What are your gods?"

Victor Cutler plays Vane Blazier, a subtle rival for Caroline Marsh's affections. Famed singer/songwriter Hoagy Carmichael plays Hi Linnet, a singing shopkeeper in Jacksonville. Linnet is a wry observer of life in Jacksonville, and a laidback trader. Here he wants to trade a fiddle for a pocket watch: "Well, all you can do with that is clock the time. With a fiddle, you can pass the time."

The town bully, a murderer, and a thief called Honey Bragg is played by Ward Bond. Logan has his suspicions that Bragg is responsible for the death of two miners. As Doc opines, "Honey Bragg is a low down skunk." When the brutal Bragg attacks a young Native woman, he brings righteous wrath upon the settlers extending the death of innocents.

High-strung and independent characters with conflicting intentions clash in Jacksonville. Affections are deep and changing. The community can act as one for good or ill. The good includes a cabin raising for a young couple played by Virginia Patton and James Cardwell, and the coming together when danger looms. The ill include a fight between Logan and Bragg. It is expected and the town must have its show. The scene is brutal and satisfying. Yet it finishes nothing. The ill mood and power of the mob are also on display when a kangaroo court decides the fate of George Camrose who is accused of murder. "What's wrong with hearsay if it's true?"

Pascal's screenplay is poetic and thoughtful. Tourneur presents characters who are always more than they seem on the surface. The reality of the harshness of the wilderness matches the reality of the emotions of the people we get to know in Canyon Passage. These are people we like, people we understand, as well as people we revile. Canyon Passage is a continually engrossing story and a beautiful sight for the eyes.

Frank Skinner's score soars with the action and supports the story. Hoagy Carmichael wrote and performs four songs, or snippets of songs, throughout the picture: Rogue River Valley, I'm Gettin' Married in the Mornin', Silver Saddle, and Ole Buttermilk Sky with lyrics by Jack Brooks.

Ole Buttermilk Sky was a recording and Billboard hit for several artists including Kay Kyser, Matt Dennis, and Hoagy Carmichael. It received an Oscar nomination for Best Music, Original Song. The trophy went to On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe from The Harvey Girls by Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer.

Here's Hoagy singing Ole Buttermilk Sky. On YouTube, you can access several artists singing the popular song.


  1. Caught this a few years back and enjoyed it. Was surprised that the author wa English.

    1. Yes. It's one of those things like Dimitri Tiomkin's music sounding so "American". Sometimes it takes perspective to create something that feels organic.

  2. Wow, Dana Andrews, great supporting cast of favs, and good old Hoagy and "Buttermilk Sky" - what's not to love? Thanks for a great sneak peak and adding to my ever-growing list of movies I have to chase down.

    1. It's not coming up on the TCM schedule any time soon, but I'm sure it will be around when you're ready. It truly is a very interesting movie and once you've seen it, it will be hard to get out of your head.



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