Track of the Cat (1954)

Track of the Cat

Got to keep drunk to forget I’m married to a clothes pin.  It’s the 1890s. In a snowbound homestead in Arizona, the Bridges family lives in contentious squalor. Brothers Curt (Robert Mitchum) and Harold (Tab Hunter) fight over the attentions of their beautiful neighbor, Gwen (Diana Lynn), while the boys’ boozing father (Philip Tonge) suffers under the abuse of their religiously minded mother (Beulah Bondi) who keeps spinster daughter Grace (Teresa Wright) under wraps. The family dysfunction only intensifies when a panther kills Curt’s timid brother, Arthur (William Hopper), and Curt sets out to slay the animal… There are traces of film noir leaving their track across this western, with its heightened stylised drama, vicious male-female antagonism and intense visuals, all complemented by contrasting performing styles. A.I. Bezzerides adapted Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s novel.  It’s directed by William Wellman, whose pet project this was, wanting to make a black and white film in colour and choosing some extremely interesting setups in collaboration with cinematographer William Clothier. It’s good to see Wright and Mitchum years after Pursued. Because it was produced by John Wayne’s company and didn’t do especially well it was taken out of distribution and remained unseen for many years due to his son’s refusal to have it put on DVD. Since his death his widow has made sure some previously lost films are now available. This is one of them.

Buffalo Bill (1944)

Buffalo Bill alt.jpg

They were all my friends. William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody (Joel McCrea) is the legendary hunter and scout who rescues Senator Federici (Moroni Olsen) and his daughter Louisa (Maureen O’Hara). They fall in love and marry and Louisa bears him a son, named for Kit Carson. Bill becomes good friends with Yellow Hand (Anthony Quinn), chief of the Cheyenne but Bill is forced by a collection of businessmen, politicians and the Army to fight them – a fight he doesn’t want. Writer Ned Buntline (Thomas Mitchell) immortalises his escapades and when he arrives in Washington is stunned that even little kids know who he is. When he receives distressing news of his baby son’s illness he blames his wife for their coming East and leaves her while his political disagreements become newspaper fodder. He is basically destitute until he’s offered work in a Wild West show … This more or less fictionalised biography is told with customary efficiency and verve from Twentieth-Century Fox with a screenplay by Clements Ripley, Aeneas MacKenzie, John Francis Larkin, Frank Winch and Cecile Kramer. It’s an absorbing yarn, shot in gorgeous Technicolor and moving like quickfire and has interesting touches, such as Dawn Starlight (Linda Darnell) trying on Louisa’s ‘white woman’ clothes for size and of course the marvellous action scenes, expertly choreographed.  Directed beautifully by ‘Wild’ Bill Wellman who is under-remembered now but is the subject of a great big new coffee table book which I am anticipating under the Christmas tree. Just sayin’!

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

The_Ox-Bow_Incident_poster.jpg

It’s man taking on himself the vengeance of the law. Drifters Gil (Henry Fonda) and Art (Henry Morgan) wander into a small Nevada town and enjoy a drink at the bar when news reaches people that local rancher Kinkaid has had 600 head of cattle rustled and he’s been murdered. The sheriff has gone to investigate. In the meantime the locals take the law into their own hands and Gil and Art tag along with the lynch mob. They find three men (Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn and elderly Francis Ford) eating in Ox-Bow Canyon and without evidence, trial or jury, decide to hang them as thieves and murderers despite the eldest man protesting he bought their cattle from Kinkaid without receiving a bill of sale. Only seven men refuse to support their actions. Then the sheriff arrives and tells them he’s found the murderer… This taut adaptation of Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s 1940 western novel was adapted and produced by Lamar Trotti for Twentieth-Century Fox and its economy of form (a studio set) immeasurably aids the aesthetic choices by director William Wellman in a sparse and breathtaking seventy-three minutes. Within that straitened narrative are teased the limits of a father-son relationship (the self-righteous Major Tetley whose son doesn’t agree with his actions), a romantic relationship between Gil and Rose (Mary Beth Hughes), who turns up on the stage with the man she just married en route to San Francisco, and the allegorical debate about law and justice at the heart of everything. Fonda’s future role in Twelve Angry Men is also prophesied while his part in The Grapes of Wrath is recalled by having Jane Darwell join the baying murderers. A classic of liberalism, a jewel in Hollywood’s crown and a warning about the sadistic lure of mob rule.

A Star is Born (1937)

A Star is Born 1937 poster.jpg

So you find out that the film you are going to watch has … at least ten writers. But look at their names:  David O. Selznick, Ring Lardner, Jr., Ben Hecht, John Lee Mahin, Budd Schulberg, Adela Rogers St John. And they’re the UNCREDITED contributors?! The story was by director William Wellman, one of the unsung Hollywood reliables, along with Robert Carson. But in fact the ‘story’ was devised and written by St John for the earlier film, What Price Hollywood? (1932, Cukor) which is widely acknowledged as the inspiration here. St John was a close friend of Colleen Moore, whose marriage to publicist and producer John McCormick is presumed to be the source for the idea. The other actors upon whom Norman Maine may have been based include John Gilbert, John Barrymore, Norman Kerry and John Bowers aka John Bowersox. Movie lore has it that Bowers had killed himself the year before upon finding that his old friend Henry Hathaway had cast Gary Cooper in a role he had hoped would be his comeback. And the screenplay is by Dorothy Parker (‘men don’t make passes …’ etc.) and her husband Alan Campbell and Carson.  Helluva cast list, don’t you think? And that’s before we get to the meat of the film itself – a great performance by Janet Gaynor, who’d been in Hollywood since the silents, along with Frederic March as the fading star, in this disquisition on acting, fame, Hollywood, talent, booze, marriage and celebrity. And any film that can boast an actress with the moniker Trixie Friganza can’t be bad. This is the first, non-musical version of the story. In some people’s minds it might be the best but the 1954 version Judy Garland and James Mason is unforgettable. And for Barbra Streisand, well it’s Evergreen. Happy Easter.