David O. Selznick produced (and co-scripted and even directed bits of) that 1946 western epic Duel in the Sun (available on DVD) in a wild, headlong attempt to outdo in every way his success seven years earlier with the epoch-making Gone With the Wind; as well as to forever extinguish (his then-lover, soon wife) Jennifer Jones’ wholesome Song of Bernadette image (a 1943 Oscar to her for that, a role Selznick helped her get) and replace it with Sex Goddess of All Time.
To pull this off, he hired master filmmaker King Vidor (The Big Parade, The Crowd, Street Scene, and numerous other classics) and then proceeded to second-guess him to death. Nevertheless, though Vidor eventually quit in disgust, he did manage to just about make Selznick’s conceit work (with uncredited direction from William Dieterle, Sidney Franklin, Otto Brower, production designer William Cameron Menzies, and even Josef von Sternberg); there’s a highly charged sense of sexual tension throughout, an intoxicated, somewhat stylized spin on the material.
Gregory Peck was never again both so disreputable or so attractive, and Jones, too, let herself go as she would only do one other time (though not as far), again for King Vidor, in Ruby Gentry (1952). Over all, if you don’t take Duel too seriously, it’s a lot of fun, with a terrific supporting cast that includes Joseph Cotten, Lionel Barrymore, Walter Huston, Lillian Gish and Harry Carey.
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For very different Americana, set in a small post-Civil War town straddling North and South sentiments in the early days of the 20th century, there’s one of John Ford’s most personal early talkies, 1934’s Judge Priest (available in the mammoth Ford at Fox box-set) starring the man who was at that time probably the most popular American in the world, Will Rogers.
From today’s perspective, the picture is hopelessly incorrect politically—Stepin Fetchit alone doing his stuff can infuriate people; yet, interestingly, Keenen Ivory Wayans and other prominent African Americans have not so long ago taken a newer look at the comic brilliance of these once-popular black stars, to remove the “Uncle Tom” label so unfairly attached to them.
Ford encouraged Rogers in his tendency to ad lib and, as a result, the picture, though clearly dated at times, has a kind of improvisational freshness, as well as the director’s signature ability to evoke tears over bygone times.
Recently issued on DVD for the first time is Ford’s own remake of Judge Priest, released originally in 1953 as The Sun Shines Bright (available here), with little-known character actor Charles Winninger in the Will Rogers role. Based on the same short stories by Irvin S. Cobb, the picture was always touted as one of Ford’s personal favorites, but it never did very well with the public, and no wonder. The work is so personal to the director that it tends to exclude the viewer; the plot and characters are only sketched in, leaving a lot for the audience to figure out as far as the all-important backstory is concerned.
The new release (on Blu-Ray) is the complete 101-minute version, which I don’t think I had been exposed to before, since the film was widely circulated in only a 90-minute edition. Unfortunately, the correct length doesn’t make the plot of the backstory that much easier to follow, and, although I’m sure dedicated Ford lovers will enjoy the picture, I’ve felt that the director’s perverse enthronement of it as one of his very best was largely based on its general dismissal by critics and audiences.
To me what is most interesting about the film is its depiction of the split Civil War loyalties found in the small Kentucky town where a dwindling number of people still uphold the Confederate cause while an infinitely larger group favor the North. Stepin Fetchit repeats his role as Judge Priest’s “boy” and is pretty hard to accept as anything but a hopeless stereotype, though he does it with considerable panache.
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Also from Ford, made five years after Judge Priest, is the upstate New York-Revolutionary War saga, Drums Along the Mohawk (available on DVD). His first film in color—Ford always preferred black and white, though he made a number of the best color pictures—Drums is not up there with Stagecoach or Young Mr. Lincoln, all three of them, amazingly, released in the same 1939 calendar year. But with beautiful Henry Fonda and witty Claudette Colbert, as well as an excellent cast that includes Edna May Oliver at her best, the picture is lively and likable and features a number of memorable Fordian images and sequences.
Chief among these is an extraordinarily long take featuring a wounded and exhausted Fonda recounting in agonizing detail the terrible battle he had just been through. The shot, which involves several actors moving in and out of frame, and considerable background action, is distinguished by Fonda’s exceptional and deeply felt performance—basically a heartbreaking monolog delivered without self-pity and with an entirely convincing and indeed riveting sense of truth. When I once asked Orson Welles what he felt was the difference between breaking up a scene into many cuts or doing it all in one shot, he said, “Well, we always said that’s what distinguishes the men from the boys.”