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James Stewart showed some True Grit as well
The recent release of the Coen Brothers' True Grit has introduced a new audience to one of America's oldest cinematic forms, the Western. There was a time not all that long ago when Westerns dominated the movie theaters and television sets across the country. Nowadays the Western is more of a quaint curiosity, one that generally attracts older audiences. But the new True Grit seems to be bringing in those too young to remember the “bygone days of yesteryear”. And for those who's taste for Westerns was whetted a bit, I'll suggest you check out another movie star who's legend was heavily impacted by this unique American art form.
Until 1950, James Stewart was merely a huge Hollywood star. His “aw-shucks” demeanor, earnest approach, and impeccable comedic skills were fully on display in such films as “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, “The Philadelphia Story” (his only Oscar winning performance), and “Harvey”. But he revealed a new side of acting skills with his collaboration with film director Anthony Mann. Together, Stewart played more complex characters who's motivations were sometime questionable.
Of their eight films together, five were classic westerns that not only increased his status, but gave audiences at the time a new look of the talent of James Stewart.
The only entry filmed in black and white, Stewart plays Lin McAdam who, along with his companion Frankie Wilson performed by Millard Mitchell enter the town of Dodge City where McAdam wins a coveted Winchester rifle, only to have that prize stolen. The rest of the film is McAdam & Wilson trying to locate that rifle.
This is a tight, action filled Western with great supporting performances. The black and white cinematography enhances the suspense and this film is certainly one of the best of the Stewart/Mann collaborations.
The moment when an infuriated McAdam tries to pry information from the villainous Waco Johnny Dean played by the cool, smirking Dan Duryea showed a side of Stewart that left audiences gasping in shock at the time. The film is also notable for the early appearances of Tony Curtis and Rock Hudson in small, yet effective roles.
As an aside, this DVD release is the only one to have a complete commentary track by James Stewart.
Bend of the River
Trail guide James Stewart takes a party of God fearing settlers into the heart of the Pacific Northwest, only to run across greedy boat captains, fierce hijackers, and double crossing villeins. The film opens with an effective action sequence at night against a band of not so friendly Indians.
Perhaps not quite as good as Winchester '73, Bend of the River is more typical of the Western “oater” of the times. Yet Stewart's character is unusually complex and he maintains a burning anger barely hidden under his calm facade. His character is clearly a man with an unsettled past and Stewart manages to ride that fine line of believability.
Bend of the River is a sumptuous production filmed on location in Oregon. This Technicolor classic bursts with vibrant colors in every shot. Although I must point out that Mann was smart enough to frame the impressive Mt. Hood in almost every outdoor shot, even when it doesn't make sense at times.
Standout performances include Arthur Kennedy as Stewert's one time ally and Rock Hudson, who's given far more screen time than his earlier effort in Winchester '73. Dragnet and M*A*S*H fans may also recognize Henry Morgan as one of the “hijackers”. Also included in the cast is veteranAfrican-American actor Stephin' Fetchit. His performance, typical of most of his film appearances may seem to come from another, less ethnic friendly time. But here it is short and his comedic timing is spot on.
As another aside, this was the last film Stewart did without a toupee. You can see why in some of the action scenes.
The Naked Spur
One of Hollywood's best and most unappreciated actors, Robert Ryan plays Ben Vandergroat who, along with his young companion Lina Patch, played by Janet Lee, are being hunted down in the Pacific Northwest (not far from where Bend of the River was shot) by bounty hunter Howard Kemp (James Stewart). Who has really gone out of his way to catch Ryan. Along the way Stewart runs across an ornery prospector (Millard Mitchell) and an AWOL Army Captain (Ralph Meeker) who join his pursuit if only to share in the reward promised. The resulting capture and subsequent journey of all involved makes for one great film, perhaps the best of the Stewart/Mann collaborations.
The Technicolor cinematography is perhaps even better here than in Bend of the River and the final scene of Stewart, who must wrestle with some hard choices, marks one of the many high points of his career.
The Far Country
Wagon train leader and opportunist Jeff Webster (James Stewart) along with his sidekick Ben Tatum (the great character actor Walter Brennan) go north to Yukon territory with a herd of cattle to sell. Only to have them commandeered by a crooked sheriff (a spot-on perfect John McIntire). Webster and Tatum then fall into the impressive heaving chest of saloon owner Ronda Castle (a “chesty” Ruth Roman) and help her move to yet another town in the Yukon in search of fortune and glory.
This is perhaps the least of the five films, yet it does have some great moments. While Stewart's character is somewhat less complex and therefore, interesting. The performance of John McIntyre deserves a lot of recognition. His character is smart, menacing, and yet a practical man. Kudos also go to Jay C. Flippin who plays a drunk that somehow becomes a figure of authority.
Unfortunately, the film is dragged down by the bizarre inclusion of Corrine Calvet as Stewart's second love interest in the film, though she's way too young and her accent creates a big distraction. Despite that, this is still an enjoyable, well made film that deserves a larger audience.
Yet another aside, a classic scene occurs when Stewart's horse walks without a rider down the main street of Dawson. According to an interview with Stewart, before the scene began he whispered into the horse's ear the instructions and viola, the horse walked alone down the street in one take.
The Man from Laramie
Mysterious stranger Will Lockheart (Stewart) delivers supplies to a store in an isolated town amidst the Apaches. His presence there ruffles the feathers of the very angry son (Alex Nicol) of the biggest landowner in the area (Donald Crisp). For reasons he reveals later, Lockheart stays in the town and eventually runs across a plot by the landowner's son and the ranch foreman (Arthur Kennedy) to supply the Apache with rifles.
More of a complex drama than a full out action film, Stewart manages to give one of his best performances. There is always something in his eyes that lets you know his character is thinking about two-steps ahead of what his current situation is. His attraction to the store owner (Cathy O'Donnell) is touching and reserved while his friendship with a rival landowner (a crotchety Aline MacMahon) is very humorous.
This is arguably the best of the five Westerns Stewart did with Mann, rivaling The Naked Spur. But all five films make for excellent viewing for those who wish to explore further the art of the Western.