"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Now for the 40s


The 1940s launch the adult Western


I thought I might post the best ten Westerns of the 1980s, but you know, I couldn't make it to ten. How sad. I need to reflect on it more. Maybe I'll come up with a ninth and tenth.

But when I went back to the 1940s, that was quite a different matter. An embarras de richesse. The 40s was when the big studios decided that Westerns had grown up and the adult market would pay to see them. It really started with Stagecoach in 1939.

With notable exceptions, 1930s cowboy films had been rather juvenile talkies. We'll look at those another day. But in the decade of World War II and after, grown-ups waited in line outside movie theaters to see big-budget Westerns with action, love interest and even - sometimes - subtlety of writing, characterization and plot.

My first 'short' list consisted of the following in alphabetical order):

Along Came Jones (RKO, 1945)
Canyon Passage (Universal, 1946)
Dark Command (Republic, 1940)
Fort Apache (RKO, 1948)
Four Faces West (MGM, 1948)
Go West (MGM, 1940)
My Darling Clementine (Fox, 1946)
Pursued (Warner Bros, 1947)
Red River (United Artists, 1948)
San Antonio (Warner Bros, 1945)
She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (RKO, 1949)
Streets Of Laredo (Paramount, 1949)
The Man From Colorado (Columbia, 1948)
The Ox-Bow Incident (Fox, 1943)
The Paleface (Paramount, 1948)
The Return of Frank James (Fox, 1940)
The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (Warner Bros, 1947)
The Westerner (MGM, 1940)
They Died With Their Boots On (Warner Bros, 1941)
Western Union (Fox, 1941)
When The Daltons Rode (Universal, 1940)
Whispering Smith (Paramount, 1948)
Yellow Sky (Fox, 1948)

They're all most definitely worth a watch, even a DVD purchase. But you can't have a top ten of 23 so what to eliminate?

Well, Along Came Jones is delightful and it revealed Gary Cooper's talent for light comedy but we can't really claim that it's an epic.

Canyon Passage is also a quality Western, unusual in many ways, and with classy acting. But again, it can't rank with the mighty John Ford canon or Red River or the like. So out that went.

Dark Command was Republic's high point and Wayne was good and it would have made the grade if other Wayne vehicles later in the decade hadn't bumped it.

Clearly Fort Apache has to be in the list. It is one of the greatest Westerns of all time. Ditto its sequel, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon. Ford's other masterpiece, My Darling Clementine (his best work after The Searchers) has a place of honor too.

Howard Hawks rivaled Ford only once: when he made the mighty Red River. A great classic. That has to be in.

I would have loved to have made room for some great comedy Westerns of the period, the Marx Brothers' Go West and Bob Hope in The Paleface, but they had to go too. Comedy Westerns (good ones) are fun but they can hardly displace the real thing, now can they.

So we're gradually whittling them down.

I adore that fine little movie Four Faces West (one of the rare Westerns in which no gun is fired). It is really classy. But it is just that - a little Western. A minor masterpiece, but minor. Much the same applies to that noir Raoul Walsh psycho-Western with Bob Mitchum, Pursued. Terrific. But minor. So choppedy chop.

I would have had San Antonio for its sheer energy but Errol Flyn makes the grade with the superb They Died With Their Boots On (Walsh makes it this time), so San Antonio gave way to that.

I considered The Streets Of Laredo (Holden...); The Man From Colorado (Holden again, and Glenn Ford...); Western Union (big budget A-picture and we haven't got a Randolph Scott in the list so I pondered long and hard there); When the Daltons Rode is good stuff and Whispering Smith is often regarded as a classic but they had Broderick Crawford and Alan Ladd, respectively, leading them and that kind of ruled them out for me. Both were pretty weak in Westerns, Shane notwithstanding.

I have always thought Yellow Sky a fine piece and one of the great Peck's better efforts, so that got in. The Treasure Of The Sierrra Madre is a five-revolver job, one of the truly greats (although I could have cheated, I suppose, and said it wasn't really a Western, being set in Mexico in modern times). The Return of Frank James was better than its prequel and is a fine effort by Fritz Lang. Fonda is magisterial. That made the cut. Fonda again in The Ox-Bow Incident, dark, troubling, memorable, noble.

And lastly, I eliminated Gary Cooper in Along Came Jones but no one would have the courage to do that with The Westerner. He and Walter Brennan are just magnificent. The William Wyler direction ditto. It's the best ever telling of the Judge Roy Bean tale. A must.

So there we are. We come down to (in alphabetical order):

Fort Apache (RKO, 1948)
My Darling Clementine (Fox, 1946)
Red River (United Artists, 1948)
She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (RKO, 1949)
The Ox-Bow Incident (Fox, 1943)
The Return of Frank James (Fox, 1940)
The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (Warner Bros, 1947)
The Westerner (MGM, 1940)
They Died With Their Boots On (Warner Bros, 1941)
Yellow Sky (Fox, 1948)

All the best,

Jeff.


No comments:

Post a Comment