Montgomery Clift in 1948 – Part II: Red River

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Although it wasn’t released until late September of 1948, about 6 months after the release of The Search, Howard Hawks’ western Red River was actually Montgomery Clift’s first experience with filming movies.  It was a trial by fire, or maybe by water.  The film was shot in Rain Valley, east of Tucson Arizona, and during filming it rained nearly continuously for six weeks.  Many of the actors got sick with colds.  Scenes had to be rewritten to accommodate the weather.

Clift and John Wayne didn’t like each other, something that would work in their favor when acting out scenes of friction between their characters, but which couldn’t have been pleasant for Monty to live through. Wayne told a Life magazine editor “Clift is an arrogant little bastard.”  Additionally, Wayne thought Monty was a wimp.  According to Clift biographer Patricia Bosworth, “Wayne actually burst into guffaws when Hawks staged the fight between them. Wayne simply could not take the scene seriously – something that privately infuriated Monty and probably inspired the superhuman intensity he brought to his battle with Wayne.”

Monty had little experience with riding and none with cowboy work prior to filming, but with typical intensity he set about Montgomery Clift on the set of RED RIVER (1948)learning.  “He came down two weeks early and went out after breakfast with a cowboy, taking a lunch with them, and they rode all day long – up hills and down steep places, and through water and so on,” Howard Hawks told Peter Bogdanovich in an interview years later.  “And by the start of the picture he really rode well.  You could tell that. And I taught him a little jump step to get into the saddle – he’d make a little hop into the stirrup.  He worked – he really worked hard.”  Asked if Clift was ever difficult to work with, Hawks replied “Oh, nobody that good is difficult.”  His later directors would beg to differ, but at this point in Monty’s life it was true.

Clift was polite on set but only occasionally joined the nightly poker games led by Hawks and Wayne.  Mostly he kept to himself, poring over his script and writing endless notes in the margins as he examined his character from the inside out, something he would continue to do with scripts for the rest of his career.  He would later say of his experience with the Red River cast and crew, “They laughed and drank and told dirty jokes and slapped each other on the back.  They tried to draw me into their circle but I couldn’t go along with them. The machismo thing repelled me because it seemed so forced and unnecessary.”

In the end the lousy weather, illness, and macho games were worth it, however.  Red River is a beautiful, complex western that’s entertaining from start to finish – a skillful blend of action, humor, romance, and drama.  The film also excels at pitting two different life and leadership philosophies against each other in the characters of John Wayne’s hardened cattle rancher Thomas Dunson, a man who shoots first and lets God sort out the souls,  and Dunson’s foster son Matthew Garth (Clift), a skilled sharpshooter who returns from the Civil War preferring to act out of mercy, good judgment and, whenever possible, non-violence.

As the movie begins Tom Dunson is leaving a wagon train along with his friend Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan), heading to Texas with little more than a bull to his name in hopes of starting a cattle ranch. Despite her protests he leaves the girl he loves (Coleen Gray) behind with the train, promising to come back for her once he’s settled.  Unfortunately that plan is not to be, since soon after Dunson departs the wagon train is attacked by Indians.  They wipe out everyone but a teenaged boy named Matthew Garth, who managed to escape along with a cow he was searching for when the Indians appeared.  When Matt proves his worth by standing up to Dunson, he takes the boy on as his responsibility.  “He’ll do,” he tells Groot with grudging approval, and they all head out together for Texas.  Dunson admires the backbone young Matt shows, and his ability to think for himself.  In time those qualities will tear the two of them apart.

Years pass and Dunson’s Red River D ranch is large, if no longer prosperous.  He’s killed and buried many men who tried to take his land away, giving everything including perhaps his soul to make the place a success, but the Civil War has left the South’s economy in tatters.  His cattle are no longer worth a thing in Texas.  Now that Matt has returned from fighting, Dunson plans to lead a cattle drive to Missouri, where he believes he’ll be able to sell the animals for beef at a good price.

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The chasm between Dunson’s and Matthew’s ways of thinking starts to show right away.  As they round up the cattle, Matt tells the men to let any not marked with Dunson’s brand go free.  Dunson instructs him instead to brand all the cattle they’ve caught with the Red River D.  Matt disapproves of what amounts to thievery, but he follows orders.  “Put the iron on all of ’em,” he tells a cowhand disgustedly. “Anything you see, slap it with a ‘Red River D’ and burn it deep.”

Annex - Clift, Montgomery (Red River)_01To Dunson he says “You’re gonna wind up branding every rump in the state of Texas except mine.”  For now they’re able to smooth it over, Dunson threatening to put the iron to Matt, Matt laughing off the thought that Dunson would really do it. But as the cattle drive gets underway, Dunson’s mania to get the cattle to Missouri regardless of the human cost drives a wedge further and further between the two men.

Dunson threatens to brutally whip a hapless cowhand who started a stampede, costing a fellow cowboy and many of the cattle their lives.  He’s only stopped from killing the man when Matt pulls out his gun and intervenes.  When talk among the men turns to their desire to drive the cattle to Abilene, Kansas instead of taking the more difficult and dangerous trek to Missouri, an idea Dunson refuses even to consider, several of them threaten to leave.  Dunson shoots and kills the “quitters,” much to Matt’s revulsion.

On Dunson drives the men, past the point of exhaustion and common sense.  For Matt the final straw comes when two men who stole supplies and ran away in the night are brought back to Dunson by cowboy Cherry Valance (John Ireland).  Dunson plans to hang the men for theft and desertion, but Matt has had enough of what he sees as senseless killing.  He stops Dunson and easily gets the demoralized cowboys to join him in a mutiny, taking over the herd and promising to take them all on to Abilene himself.

Betrayed by the man he saw as a son and to whom he planned to one day leave everything, Dunson promises Matt that he’ll follow and kill him.  The rest of the movie unfolds suspensefully as Dunson gathers a gang to follow Matt and the cattle drive, while Matt tries to stay several steps ahead.  Matt hopes that once he’s successful in selling the livestock and has money to hand over, Dunson will see sense and relent.  The pain for him is that he believes in his heart the man he loves like a father will never forgive him, even though he did what he had to to salvage the herd and stop the violence.

For all the serious moments in Red River, the movie is also funny at times.  Much of the comic relief comes from the always memorable Walter Brennan as Nadine Groot, the toothless cook whose pronouncements are hard to understand unless he puts in the store-bought teeth Matt brought him after the war.

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There’s also a good amount of lust and romance – enough for whatever floats your boat, in fact.  Red River is famous for several scenes of homoeroticism surprisingly blatant for the day, and particularly shocking for their inclusion in a John Wayne movie directed by Howard Hawks.  The heat generated between Montgomery Clift’s Matt Garth and John Ireland’s Cherry Valance is almost visible on the screen as they examine each other’s guns, eye each other warily but with great interest, and sit around the campfire talking quietly at night.

At the same time, there’s plenty of heat between Clift and his actual love interest in the movie.  Joanne Dru plays Tess Millay, a beautiful spitfire Matthew meets while rescuing her wagon train from an Indian attack en route to Abilene.  Tess is an archetypical Hawksian woman – able to hold her own with men in a game of cards or a battle of wits, tough enough to take an arrow through the shoulder without flinching or crying out, yet able to make her man feel like a man when the chips are down.  Dru’s scenes with Clift are terribly steamy as they talk and kiss in the rain, and later spend a night together before Matt finally has to face down Dunson and either kill or be killed.

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Watching Montgomery Clift act is quite simply a pleasure.  I constantly marvel at the little bits of business he adds to his scenes.  Lighting a cigarette to perfectly punctuate a moment.  Letting a small smile flicker across his face, or a look of anxiety subtly cross his brow.  Pushing his cowboy hat up just so, or gently bumping into a lamp in his erotically-charged haste to take a woman in his arms.  Small moments like those were labored over painstakingly in the margins of his scripts and in rehearsal with his acting teacher, Mira Rostova, but show absolutely no air of study at all in the execution.

It’s the same with the way he says his lines – the inflections, the pauses, the way he uses his voice.  He’s one of the most natural, believable actors I’ve ever seen.  He simply is the character he’s playing.  I never stop feeling awe when I watch him in a role, whether one from his late 1940s – mid-1950s heyday, or one from the post-accident years when he was struggling with life on and off the set. It doesn’t matter. His talent is always so apparent.

As for his own opinion, Clift thought he was mediocre in Red River, and that the movie itself was awful.  He hated the watered down ending, re-written so that John Wayne’s character wouldn’t die, and he hated that the conflict which had built to a fever pitch by the end of the film was resolved in a moment of anti-climax, with Tess Millay breaking up the fight between Dunson and Matt.  “It makes the showdown between me and John Wayne a farce,” Monty said.

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I tend to agree with him on that one point – the end does feel like a letdown and a cheat after all the drama – but as for the rest of the movie, I think it’s brilliant.  From the strong performances by both Wayne and Clift, to the gorgeous cinematography by Russell Harlan, to the sweeping score by the great Dimitri Tiomkin, the movie is completely entertaining and thought-provoking.

Who is the real man, the one who fights, bullies and kills in order to get what he wants, or the one who has the courage of his convictions and isn’t afraid to have compassion and a soft heart? What kind of person makes a true leader, the one with a violent my-way-or-the-highway attitude, or the one who favors discussion, collaboration, and respect?

These kinds of questions permeate Red River as they were permeating the way men in a post-World War II world looked at themselves as they re-integrated into civilian life.  In his embodiment of a kind of masculinity that could be both strong and tender, both physical and cerebral, Montgomery Clift seemed in 1948 to be the man of the moment.

I’ll be back soon with Part 3 of this look at Monty in 1948, with a review of one of my favorite of his movies – Fred Zinnemann’s The Search.

Sources:

Montgomery Clift by Patricia Bosworth, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1978

The Films of Montgomery Clift by Judith M. Kass, Citadel Press 1979

Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors by Peter Bogdanovich, Ballantine Books 1998

Tweet, Tweet! Plus, Stars in My Crown (1950)

Before I get into discussing today’s movie, I wanted to mention that I’ve started a Twitter account for my miscellaneous thoughts on classic movie and stars. You can follow me (@HTD_Classics) by clicking the Twitter widget on the right. I envision lots of random, silly fangirl gushing there, so be forewarned!

Stars in My Crown (1950)

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I know there isn’t really an endless supply of good classic movies, but lately it feels like it. Even though I’ve watched hundreds of movies over the years, there’s still so much out there to discover and enjoy. It’s fantastic! In the past week alone I’ve seen two completely wonderful films I’d never even heard of a month ago – One Way Passage, which I wrote about the other day, and director Jacques Tourneur’s heartwarming drama Stars in My Crown.

I’ve read quite a few excited mentions of the movie in various blogs since Warner Archive announced its DVD release last month, and after watching it I completely understand what all the fuss was about. Stars in My Crown is one of the most uplifting movies I’ve watched in a long while.

The story is narrated by the character John Kenyon, an adult reminiscing about his childhood growing up indean stockwell  a small town in the years after the Civil War. The young John is played by Dean Stockwell. I haven’t seen very many of Stockwell’s childhood roles, but I’ve been truly impressed by the ones I have seen. He’s completely natural and real in Stars in My Crown – cute without being cutesy, and with a delivery of his lines that makes you believe he just is this kid. He has an especially good rapport with Joel McCrea, which they demonstrated again a few years later in an enjoyable Western called Cattle Drive.

John is an orphan being raised by his mother’s sister Harriet (Ellen Drew) and her husband Josiah, the town parson (McCrea). Parson Gray loves his town and the people living there, and is an integral part of their lives. He’s the moral center of the place – a truly decent man who leads by his example. He’s tough when he needs to be (the way he strides into the newly formed town and starts preaching to the drunks in the bar is very amusing) and has a great sense of humor and fun.

stars-in-my-crown-joel-mccrea-1950 To me, nobody could’ve played this part and embodied it quite as well as Joel McCrea. McCrea radiated decency in a way few other actors ever did. Even among the others who often played similar “good guy” parts – Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda or even Gary Cooper – McCrea stands out in my mind as the one who most naturally represents a simple, straightforward goodness on the screen.

The movie moves along at a gentle but brisk pace, introducing us to a young doctor who takes over his late father’s practice and clashes with the parson on matters of science versus faith, the sweet schoolteacher the doctor falls in love with,  a black farmer named Uncle Famous whose land contains a vein of mica coveted by a businessman determined to acquire it from him, and the parson’s non-churchgoing best friend and former Union army comrade.

The two main plots in the film revolve around the doctor and the farmer. The doctor juano_hernandezand the parson face an outbreak of typhoid that puts them at odds with one another, causing  each of them to question their own beliefs and look at each other’s with new respect. The farmer encounters cruelty and violence from the Ku Klux Klan when he refuses to sell his land to the businessman. The scene in which the parson peacefully – perhaps even miraculously – intervenes to stop the Klan from hanging Famous is incredibly moving.

The poster for this movie features a picture of Joel McCrea brandishing two guns, along with the line “Take your choice…either I speak…or my pistols do!”  It’s a horribly misleading poster, because other than the humorous moment when Parson Gray pulls out his guns to keep the bar patrons listening to his first sermon in town, Gray is never seen holding a gun again.  In fact, a message of peace is very strong in the movie.  Parson Gray meets the Klansmen armed not with a gun, but with his faith.

Stockwell and McCrea give the two standout performances of the movie, but all the actors are great – Ellen Drew as the parson’s spunky wife, James Mitchell as the dedicated young doctor, Juano Hernandez as wise old Famous, pretty Amanda Blake in her pre-Gunsmoke days as the schoolteacher, Alan Hale, Sr. as the parson’s best friend, and Ed Begley as the greedy mine owner.

stars in my crown doctor and teacher with kids

Stars in My Crown is charming, funny, kindhearted and entertaining. It’s sentimental without being cloying, and contains a message of faith without being nauseatingly preachy. It’s a sweet, simple tale of small-town family life of the sort you don’t see often anymore, in movies or on TV. Where are the Charles Ingalls and John Walton type of TV fathers these days, after all? Parson Gray reminded me of both of them, and of Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, which in my view is a very good thing.

Joel McCrea said that Stars in My Crown was his favorite of all the many movies he’d been in, and considering how many truly excellent films he was part of – Sullivan’s Travels, The More the Merrier, Foreign Correspondent, The Palm Beach Story, Ride the High Country – that’s really saying something, both about the quality of the movie itself, and about the kind of man McCrea was.

For more on the admirably modest, down-to-earth Mr. McCrea and his lovely wife Frances Dee, I recommend this essay by Moira at Skeins of Thought.

All I want is to enter my house justified.

Ride the High Country (1962)

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Elsa Knudsen:  My father says there’s only right and wrong – good and evil. Nothing in between. It isn’t that simple, is it?

Steve Judd:  No, it isn’t.  It should be, but it isn’t.

Director Sam Peckinpah’s elegy to the Old West, Ride the High Country, is a movie that transcends genre. Even if you think you don’t like Westerns, this movie is worth watching because it’s quite simply a well-told story, beautifully filmed in stunning locations, and featuring great performances by two legendary actors.  It’s the story of the end of an era, a changing world, and the true, timeless things that remain behind.

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Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) and Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) are old friends and former lawmen who take on the dangerous job of escorting gold from a mining camp in the mountains to a bank in town.   Steve is a good man who is satisfied to do his job and earn his pay.  Gil, having grown disillusioned by how little living an honest life has gotten him, secretly plans to steal the gold – with or without Steve’s cooperation.

Gil brings a brash, disrespectful young co-conspirator named Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) along for the journey.  Whether Heck will continue in Gil’s footsteps or be influenced by Steve’s example is one of the more interesting questions of the movie.

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Along the way the three encounter a religious zealot, Mr. Knudsen, and his daughter, Elsa (Mariette Hartley).  Elsa is bullied and oppressed by her father, so when Judd, Westrum and Longtree leave the Knudsen home for the mining camp, Elsa runs away and follows them.  She plans to meet up with her fiancé, gold miner Billy Hammond (James Drury).  She has only met Billy a few times, but she’s anxious to get married in order to escape from her father.

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It’s out of the frying pan and into the fire for the naive and sheltered Elsa, however, when her fiancé and his brothers turn out to be violent, drunken brutes who think that everything should be shared among them – even one brother’s wife.  Judd, Westrum and Longtree are forced to rescue  Elsa from her new husband and his brothers, who pursue them with vengeance in mind.

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Steve Judd is a pillar of quiet, manly virtue.  Joel McCrea, with his clear blue eyes and calm, laconic manner, touchingly portrays Judd’s inherent decency and attempt to live a life of honor.  In a world where Judd is told he’s in the way and that he’s too old to do his job, he’s determined to keep his self-respect and do what’s right.  “All I want,” he says, “is to enter my house justified.”  Not only does he succeed in that for himself, but in the end he points his old friend Gil in that direction as well.

Gary Cooper was initially considered for the part, but he died before the movie was made.  As great as Cooper no doubt would have been, it’s hard for me to picture anyone else as Steve Judd after watching McCrea in the role.  He makes this character so strong, warm and real.  It’s one of the best things he ever did.

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Randolph Scott gives Gil Westrum roguish humor, a good bit of cynicism and, in the end, a second chance at integrity and honor.  It’s a wonderful performance.  This was Scott’s last movie before he retired, and talk about going out in style.

McCrea and Scott have a great rapport as their characters.  As you watch them interact and reminisce there truly seems to be a history of shared experience and friendship between them.  Steve and Gil worked together for years and lived through the same times, but they’ve ended up in very different places morally and ethically.  The conflict that causes between them is quite moving.

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You also see how the years have taken a toll on these once celebrated lawmen, in ways both humorous (Steve needing his spectacles to read a contract) and touching (Gil asking Steve to untie his hands after Steve captures him for trying to steal the gold, because “I don’t sleep so good anymore.”).

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Ride the High Country was filmed in the Inyo National Forest, and it’s absolutely gorgeous too look at.  The score by George Bassman is terrific, especially the beautiful and evocative main theme which you can hear in the trailer below.

The film manages to be both an exciting story and also an excellent character study full of quiet,  human moments.  There are top-notch performances by everyone involved, from the two stars to the supporting actors.

Even if you’re not much of a Western fan, Ride the High Country is a movie that deserves to be put on your to-watch list.

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