Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Icon Status of John Wayne

STAR POWER is a phrase often used in the Industry. 
Less heard is the phrase HOLLYWOOD ICON.  
Which begs the question – What actors in front of the camera today will end up being a Hollywood Icon in the future? 
It’s a tough call because the nature of Movies, and the business of making films has radically changed over the last fifty years. 
Even with all the cultural change, certain performers in the past have had no problem maintaining their status as Hollywood Icons. Marilyn Monroe continues to be on top of the Icon list. Her image is one of the first that comes to mind when the word "sexy" is mentioned. I also believe James Dean has maintained his lofty status as the poster boy of “Cool,” even among many younger filmgoers who have probably never seen one of his movies. 
However, not all of the classic Hollywood Icons have aged as well over the years. 
John Wayne is a prime example. 

At one time, the “Duke” was the biggest star on the planet. 
Indeed, his cultural persona became so huge, that what happened to John Wayne is what happens to many Hollywood Icons — they evolve to become... a metaphor. 
Marilyn and Dean became metaphors for “sexy” and “cool.” 
However, something strange happened after Wayne became a metaphor for “Manly Hero.” 
The transformation began as a generational thing - John Wayne was what your father (or grandfather) loved about movies. Not you. Or at least not those who were part of the generation that was staking a flag in the cultural landscape hoping to fight to make things different. And this generational shift ended up being the foundation for a deeper, more wide-ranging attack on John Wayne... his movies... and especially his gold framed, velvet icon image hanging on the living room walls all across middle America. 
For many people who had grown up in a progressive culture, questioning everything that had gone on before they were born, John Wayne represented not only what had been gravely wrong with this nation’s history, but the Duke was the star in the establishment's attempt to white wash all the sins from our past using Hollywood as its propaganda machine. 
While the cultural legacies of Marilyn and Dean were poolside getting a nice tan, the status of John Wayne’s legacy was being scorched. His status as an Icon was not only being questioned, but condemned in the same way many people now wonder why we have a holiday that celebrates Christopher Columbus. 

Once again we have the privilege of publishing an excerpt from The DVD Laser Disc Newsletter. Film critic Doug Pratt shares his thoughts on John Wayne’s most famous Western films. Pratt’s coverage of the Duke’s movies mostly stays within the boundaries of film history. There's no reference to John Wayne’s ranking on the Icon power list. 
That's my excuse to offer my opinion as to why I believe  John Wayne's Hollywood Icon status deserves a higher place on Monument Mountain.  After all these years, and all that has happened since the Duke’s films were first released, his star presence up on the screen still shines as bright as a super nova. 

Starting out with jet black hair and concluding with an entirely white mane, John Wayne’s character ages, becomes unglued, and then restores himself in Howard Hawks’ outstanding and
captivating cattle drive drama, RED RIVER, which has been released in a combination four-platter Blu-ray + DVD set, along with the novel that inspired the film, by The Criterion Collection (UPC#715515117012, $50).  Their first collaboration (and Hawks’ first complete western), Wayne adapted magnificently to Hawks’ breakneck staging in the 1948 production, seeming to react spontaneously to the world around him, even when things happen while his back is turned.  Montgomery Clift co-stars as Wayne’s partner, the film dramatizing the first time a Texas
cattleman took his herd from the south of Texas to Kansas. Not only does Wayne’s hair turn white (it was the first time he played a character substantially older than he actually was), but he adeptly and subtly conveys the pains of aging, having difficulty at times standing straight or mounting a horse.  (It is so subtle that in one of the analytical interviews in the supplement, Molly Haskell misreads the intentions of his stance.)  It was that maturity that truly defined Wayne’s super-stardom, in essence creating a father figure that has dogged America ever since. 

Wayne’s character becomes obsessed with guiding the herd in a direction that will unquestionably lead to ruin, while Clift favors a different but unknown alternate route.  The argument between them almost turns deadly.  Walter Brennan, John Ireland and Joanne Dru co-star, with a whole litany of well known western character actors filling in behind them.  The action scenes are breathtaking, and the production itself is impressive on a never-again scale, as hundreds of cattle were utilized during the shoot.  

On the two BD platters and the two DVD platters, one platter contains the standard 127-minute theatrical version, and the other contains a ‘pre-release’ version that runs 133 minutes.  Where the standard version has a chipper voiceover narration by Walter Brennan, the longer version has awkward fades to the pages of a journal, where you have to read for yourself what has happened during the transition.  On the other hand, while the theatrical version is properly trimmed to the essential aspects of the story, the movie is so darn good that you don’t mind at all the extensions that stretch it out a little more, adding a bit of character detail and story, or sometimes just taking in more of the environment.  The biggest change comes in the ending, which was trimmed for legal reasons rather than aesthetic ones, and therefore plays with greater satisfaction in its longer form.  On the whole, despite losing Brennan’s narration, the longer version never feels bogged down or in anyway less brisk than the tightened version, and it is the version we will recommend to friends from now on.
The full screen black-and-white picture is mostly spotless.  The
only flaw we could make out is that sometimes the left edge of the image is a little softer than the right edge, but that is a very minor quibble.  The picture looks beautiful, and is rendered with a pristine clarity.  The monophonic sound is also fairly clean and strong. There are optional English subtitles, and a trailer.
In something of a rarity, Wayne joins Dru and Brennan for the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation that was originally broadcast in 1949. Jeff Chandler gives a bland presentation of the Clift part.  You may wonder how they got all those cattle into the studio, but the radio presentation on the whole is quite good, filling in at least one plot point that is left dangling by the film (the fate of the character played by Ireland) and otherwise condensing the tale without compromising its essence.  Wayne’s performance is thrilling, and one moment, which has been altered slightly from the film for the abridgement, in which Wayne and Chandler’s characters discuss how a widow should be compensated when her husband is killed during the drive, gave us goosebumps.  
Peter Bogdanovich provides a 17-minute analysis, delineating the differences between the two versions and why they occurred, explaining why the film is one of his favorites, deconstructing a very clever shot that made it look like there were three times as many cattle as Hawks really had to work with, and talking about the highlights of his interviews with Hawks and what they revealed about the film. There are also 16 minutes of audio-only excerpts from Bogdanovich’s interview with Hawks in 1972, in which they talk about the development of the film, the actors (he wasn’t impressed with Dru, though we can’t imagine why not), some of the film’s logistics, and his previous work on a western with Howard Hughes.
The Haskell interview runs 16 minutes and essentially summarizes all of the most common interpretations of the film’s dynamics. There is also a 13-minute interview with film historian Lee Clark Mitchell who gives a fairly good overview of the Western as a genre and how Red River upended a number of its conventions, as well as summarizing the background of novelist and screenwriter Borden Chase.  An audio-only interview from 1969 with Chase runs 10 minutes, as he shares gossip about the production and talks about the research he did beforehand.  The paperback reprint of Chase’s novel, Blazing Guns on the Chisolm Trail, runs 187 pages and differs at times from the narrative trail taken by the film, although the basic Mutiny on the Bounty plot remains.

One of the most beautiful Technicolor westerns to have a narrative that matches the quality of its images, John Ford’s 1949 SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, has been released on Blu-ray as a Warner Home Video Archive Collection title (UPC#888574396039, $22).  Wayne plays a cavalry officer on the verge of retirement who goes out on one last patrol that quickly becomes a chess game with a group of marauding Indians.
 Running 103 minutes, the film has the format of a standard action western, with the specific events of the patrol taking up most of the film’s running time, but instead of having some sort of innocuous or blandly efficient opening act, the entire film is tremendously enriched by introducing both the emotional stress the hero is stoically undergoing because of his retirement, and an intensely considered variety of historical details that not only ‘color’ the film’s period setting, but directly affect the direction and momentum of the plot.  In other words, it is an artistic masterwork that readily conforms to the needs of the boxoffice.  The ending sort of wraps things up too conveniently, for the sake of the bottom line, but by then, the film’s parallel portrait of America and the hero, giving way to newer political forces and fresher destinies, is thoroughly established.  And Wayne’s performance rises to match the film’s aspirations.  While he is
given a few personality quirks to convey his aging reactions in relaxed social situations, when he is on the job, his steely concentration and informed analysis of his surroundings is unimpaired, and you see all of this in his eyes and in his manner.
Dru co-stars, with John Agar, Ben Johnson, Harey Carey, Jr., Victor McLaglen, George O’Brien and, delivering the one other magnificent, consummately felt performance in the film, hampered only by the limitation of her
screen time, Mildred Natwick.  Johnson is also terrific, and his character develops great depth by the film’s conclusion, but he has the disadvantage of gender. Natwick, like Wayne, is given an emotional life right from the start, and every nuance in her bearing and reactions is not only highly moving, but conveys a profound historical sense of how women coped with pioneer life.

The previously issued DVD was stupendously beautiful, but the BD surpasses it in almost every frame. The colors are the same, technically, but they are crisper, better detailed and more stable.  In shot after shot, what was already a gorgeous image becomes even more lyrical and thrilling.  The presentation is in full screen format only.  While the mono¬phonic sound has a more solid delivery, there is less to it that is distinctively better in comparison to the image.  There are alternate French and Spanish audio tracks, optional English, French and two types of Spanish subtitles, a trailer, and the 4 minutes of silent ‘home movies’ from the DVD, showing Ford and Wayne vacationing (ostensibly scouting locations in Mexico).

Moving away from character growth, Hawks cast Wayne as a steadfast lawman in the 1959 RIO BRAVO, which is available on Blu-ray from Warner (UPC#883929472178, $15), and it worked out so well that he essentially made the same movie again with Wayne in 1967, EL DORADO, available on Blu-ray from Paramount (UPC#883929389360, $20).  Hawks himself seems to age between the two films.  Both movies are highly entertaining action features, but the action sequences in Rio Bravo have a balletic quality to them.  Every movement erupts and flows in a captivating rhythm, while the action in EL DORADO, while still exciting, is more static, more like the work of any other director.  

Although the films are credited with different source works—Leigh Brackett, on the other hand, worked on both screenplays—the central aspects of the story are the same in both.  Dean Martin stars with Wayne and Brennan in RIO BRAVO, playing a former lawman who has turned to alcoholism after, so it is explained, a woman dumped him.  With the assistance of a young gunfighter, played by Ricky Nelson, the four undergo a siege in their jailhouse after arresting a powerful landowner, played by Claude Akins, while the landowner’s compatriots try to spring him.  There is a lengthy prolog setting things up in EL DORADO, but the narrative eventually settles into the exact same situation.  Robert Mitchum is a lawman who has turned to alcoholism after, so it is explained, a woman dumped him. Arthur Hunnicutt has the Brennan part and James Caan has the Nelson role.  Edward Asner is the prisoner.  Wayne’s scenes with Angie Dickinson in RIO BRAVO are the only instances where his character shows some development, as he is downright nervous around her at first, and just gradually becomes comfortable with her forwardness and confidence as the film proceeds.  His character appears to have long since past that point with Charlene Holt in EL DORADO.  It is Martin and Mitchum who get to do the big ‘acting,’ sobering up once things become dicey. 

Of course, in both films, the men bond like crazy—Wayne even kisses Brennan in RIO BRAVO—and the women, although they help out in a pinch, remain on the periphery.  In what was one of Hawks’ signature themes, the professionalism of both the heroes and the villains is so pronounced that it is integral to the entertainment—you’re excited, because the characters are doing exactly what is expected of them.  This is especially true of the Nelson and Caan characters, who consistently earn praise from Wayne’s character, thereby delighting younger viewers who normally have to identify with more inept and unsure generational representatives.  Although longer than standard westerns—EL DORADO runs 127 minutes, and RIO BRAVO, which has a culturally important song sequence featuring both Martin and Nelson that doesn’t advance
the plot but critically reinforces the film’s marquee appeal, runs 143 minutes—both films are brisk, intense, and utterly transporting. While Mitchum and Caan are more accomplished and versatile actors, under Hawks that is almost irrelevant, as he is able to get exactly the performances he needs from Martin and Nelson.  
Of course, RIO BRAVO is technically the better film, but EL DORADO (except for one dated comedy sequence in which Caan briefly impersonates an Asian to distract a bad guy) is just as much fun. What both movies succeed in doing is to convey to the viewer the sense of what it means to be engaged by a ‘Western.’ The town is relatively small and the townspeople not involved in the action are generally irrelevant, so that there is the western setting—a pre-technological society where guns are used to both defy and uphold the law—and invigorating action (EL DORADO is noticeably more violent, in that the consequences of the action are more palpable), which is so masterfully doled out that the interludes of character interaction, isolated and magnified by the setting, have a heightened appeal.  Add to all of that the basic histories that the actors themselves bring to the parts—the repartee between Wayne and Brennan is even more delightful if you’ve already sat through it in RED RIVER; conversely, Caan is thrilling because of what he
will be doing in the movies he hadn’t made yet—and the films become entertainment not just because of the action and drama they contain, but because they represent a quintessential aspect of
motion picture entertainment, and to that end, it is the centrality of Wayne in both movies that make them definitive experiences.

Both films are letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1. RIO BRAVO was one of the first Blu-rays Warner released, and could use a decent upgrade.  The image is clean and the colors are generally tolerable, but fleshtones are a little too orange in the wrong light, and dark hair has a tendency to take on blue highlights.  The monophonic sound is also a bit soft.  Although there is no menu selection, there are alternate French and Spanish audio tracks and optional English subtitles.  We reviewed a two-platter DVD release of RIO BRAVO and the commentary from that release, featuring intercut enthusiasms from Richard Schickel and John Carpenter, is preserved, along with a 55-minute profile of Hawks, a 33-minute retrospective piece and a 9-minute profile of the ‘western town’ set. 

In contrast, EL DORADO looks crisp and the colors are stable and precise.  The monophonic sound is also stronger and clearer. There are alternate French and Spanish audio tracks, optional English, French and Spanish subtitles, a trailer, a 6-minute interview with Paramount producer A.C. Lyles who talks in a semi-promotional manner about the films Wayne made for Paramount, a decent 5-minute promotional featurette from 1967 focussing on the artist, Olaf Wieghorst, who made the evocative paintings of life in the West that accompany the opening credits (he also has a very nice bit part in the film), and a really good 42-minute retrospective documentary about Hawks and the film.
The BD also has two commentary tracks.  One features Peter Bogdanovich, who had visited the set for a week and also famously spent quite a bit of time picking Hawks’ brain for posterity.  As with Bogdanovich’s other commentaries, the talk is a mix of terrific insider stories (“Duke didn’t like this horse.  I remember he felt the horse wasn’t great.  It couldn’t do things as quickly as he would have liked.  He was irritated by having to ride this horse, I think mainly because Howard owned the horse and rented it to the picture.”), knowledgeable insights about the movie’s thematic intricacies and Hawks’ filmmaking techniques, and, especially as the film advances, a less inspiring recitation of what is happening on the screen.  Overall, however, like his other talks, the value of what he has to say outweighs the drawbacks.

The second track features film historian Richard Schickel, with briefer inserted reflections by film historian Todd McCarthy and by Asner.  Asner shares a few tales about the excitement of having a decent role early in his career, and McCarthy sort of echoes Schickel, sharing the most established critical interpretations of Hawks’ work.  Schickel is more focussed on how the film fits into cinema as a whole than Bogdanovich is, but he also spent substantial time with Hawks himself, and provides his interpretation of Hawks’ career, and the delicate downshifting that was occurring as age caught up to the director.  “The notion of [the] somewhat comical drunk is so characteristic of movies of a
slightly earlier generation—after Lost Weekend, they didn’t do this so much—but the notion [of] the drunk as a comic, as opposed to a tragic figure, and one who was infinitely curable if you could get him to address whatever was the immediate problem that set him drinking was, it was not regarded as a complicated psychological state.  It was not necessarily something that required Alcoholics Anonymous to be summoned.  [It was] nearly always, in the movies, played for laughs, which I think says something about the waning power of the sensibility of older men like Hawks.  We do not see very many comical drunks these days.”

One of Wayne’s greatest, most heart-wrenching performances is in what is actually a secondary role—and that is the whole point of the film—playing a retired gunslinger who is building up a ranch so he can get married in John Ford’s 1962 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, only to lose his girl to a lawyer that he knows is just as good of a man, if much less adept with a firearm.  Released on Blu-ray by Paramount (UPC#883929489824, $15), James Stewart plays the central character of the film, the lawyer; Vera Miles is the pioneer woman they both have affections for; and Lee Marvin is a vicious killer hired by wealthier landowners to suppress the

movement for statehood that Stewart’s character favors.  Running 123 minutes, the film is suspenseful and entertaining, but it is also pointedly about the transition that the American West underwent.  On the one hand, Wayne’s character is almost God himself, giving his blessing on the direction civilization is taking, while on the other hand he is wracked with grief over the world that he is losing by allowing this to happen—it’s the same process that anyone with a child feels by helping that child grow and go forth into the world.  It is the way in which,
very much aided by Ford’s framing, Wayne communicates this greater sense while delivering the story at hand that makes his relatively brief presence in the film so powerful and enduring. Andy Devine also gives a surprisingly good performance, especially in his old age makeup scenes.  Edmond O'Brien, Woody Strode, Denver Pyle, Strother Martin, Lee Van Cleef and other recognizable character actors are also featured.  The black-and-white picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1 and looks spotless in every shot, with finely
detailed contrasts.  The remastered 5.1-channel Dolby Digital soundtrack is great fun, with many directional effects and a subdued but viable surround presence.  A mono track is also available.  There are alternate French, Spanish, Italian and German audio tracks, and ten subtitling options, including English.