After watching The Searchers and The Man Who Killed Liberty Valance in the past year (and having already been a fan of Stagecoach) I was near to determined to make this year’s Winter Marathon feature films by John Ford.  I was unsurprised to find Kevin in full agreement, and at that point the only real question was which movies to select.  We quickly eliminated Stagecoach for the simple reason that we decided a John Wayne combo on the three-fer was a bad idea, so the early film was clearly going to be The Grapes of Wrath.  For the middle film, Kevin had his heart set on The Quiet Man, and while I might have argued a bit more strongly for The Searchers, I hadn’t seen The Quiet Man and as such I acquiesced pretty easily.  And, for the third film, we were in complete agreement that it had to be the sublime late Ford piece The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  A bit of bonus John Wayne on top of The Quiet Man, to be sure, but Stewart was the real top biller there, so it could be made to work.

Up first, of course, the 1940 classic The Grapes of Wrath, starring Henry Ford, Jane Darwell, and John Carradine.

A face only a son could love

The film begins with our Steinbeckian-flawed protagonist Tom Joad hitchhiking his way back to the family farm in Oklahoma after being paroled from jail on a murder charge.  He quickly meets up with an itinerant former preacher – the man who originally baptized Joad but who has now lost his faith – and together they wend their way to the Joad property.  Circumstances being what they are, it turns out the rest of the Joads have recently left – those circumstances being a prolonged Dust Bowl (maybe you’ve heard of it) and the advent of machine farming conspiring to convince the deed holders of the farmland to kick off their former long-term tenants.  Tom learns that his family is in preparation to leave for Californee, where a flyer distributed around has promised them plentiful fruit picking jobs. He and the preacher (who has nothing really to do and feels he has a role yet to play – a not-so-subtle foreshadowing moment if I’ve ever seen one) catch up to the remainder of the family and head off, just like Horace Greeley advised.

It’s like Little Miss Sunshine, except there really was a beauty contest.

The truck that they take across the country is overloaded in a way that would make The Beverly Hillbillies proud, but the load lightens a bit, first when Grandpa Joad dies (they bury him on the side of the road along with a note indicating that it was NOT foul play) and second when Grandma follows suit.  There’s a bit of a tense moment at the California Agricultural Inspection Station (nice to know that nothing has changed in 78 years!) because you’re not allowed to smuggle fruit or dead grandmothers into the state, but they make it through all right.

Eight lanes of shimmering cement running from here to Pasadena. Smooth, safe, fast. Traffic jams will be a thing of the past.

Two travelers light, once they get to Southern California they find (as previously rumored at a migrant camp along the road) that the promises of jobs are basically empty – it seems the whole of Oklahoma has shown up for about 14 fruit picking jobs and the farmers are exploiting the over-supply of labor.  Soon after getting into Californee Tom, the murderous hothead that he is, gets into a tussle with a…what, sheriff?…and hits him from behind, but due to his being on probation for murder and all the preacher takes the rap and the family is separated from him.  The Joads move on down the road, where they are given a tip for a ranch where they can work, only to find that they are the scabs to a whole host of striking Okies.  With camp conditions ranging between poor and totalitarian, Tom sneaks out one night only to run into a group of folks organizing against the camp leaders, including none other than our friend the preacher.

Such a man could make even Stephen Zimmermann jealous

However, these nighttime schemers are raided by the authorities, and one of them kills the giraffic preacher, leading Tom to kill him in return.  But Tom is struck a severe blow on the cheek, so even though he escapes, the authorities have a good idea that they can track him down.  You know, bleeding cheek and all.  The Joads manage to hide him overnight and pack out of the camp the next morning, heading upstate with a man on the lam.

The introduction of the three-point line completely changed the nature of the hoe-down

And what do you know if they don’t fall into the nicest, cleanest, cheapest, government-operated migrant camp you’ve ever seen!  Why, there’s indoor plumbing and dances on Saturdays and anybody on the street will shave your back for a nickel!  It’s a true utopian paradise in the fashion that only a government dedicated to quashing the excesses of a free market can possibly provide, and let me tell you, it would have worked if it weren’t for big bad Joseph McCarthy trying to weed out the country’s best and brightest in a witchhunt.  Nonetheless, the authorities appear to be on the trail of two-time killer Tom Joad, so he exits the scene with Henry Fondaesque aplomb:

And Ma and Pa Joad head off with the rest of the family secure in the knowledge that tomorrow is another day.  (Or did I just mix up my films?)  The end.

Anyway, all-in-all, The Grapes of Wrath is a good (if not great) movie, but at the same time it’s pretty politically hamfisted (though likely it follows the book fairly closely – I haven’t read it).  I suppose that while for many years the no-explanation-necessary bad guy in films has been a Nazi, in 1940 the Nazis were still keeping things a bit under their hats, and what with FDR and the New Deal and the recent memory of robber barons and Vanderbilts and Carnegies and Rockefellers and all, capitalists in just about any form (even ranchers) were a pretty easy target.  It does detract from the film a bit.  The key to The Grapes of Wrath is the poverty, the simple abject poverty of the migrant farm workers, but both the cause (those greedy farmers) and the seeming solution (the government makes everything better magically!) are way too simplistic to not detract from the overall gestalt here.

Up next was The Quiet Man from 1952 – our one film to have John Wayne in the top billing.

And he’ll sit here with me/On the Isle Innisfree/And he’s writing down everything

Wayne plays Sean Thornton, an Irishman by birth, who moved to America as a child and has recently retired as a professional boxer (though he does a pretty good job of keeping the boxing bit a secret because, to spoil things a bit, he accidentally killed a man in the ring).  Sometime in the 1920s, Thornton has now returned to his hometown of Innisfree in the hopes of a quiet retirement.

If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now

He has his heart set on buying a particular cottage and farm, because, of course, it was the one he was born in.  There is only a minor problem in that the property is not particularly for sale, but this is overcome because the owner (the widow Tillane) is being continually harassed by the brash “Red” Will Danaher to sell it and she sees an opportunity, in selling it, to get Danaher out of her hair.  So, as you may imagine, Danaher carries a bit of a grudge against Thornton from the start.

Sweet on a green-eyed girl/All fiery Irish clip and curl/All brine and piss and vinegar

But of course, as these sorts of things go, Thornton nearly immediately falls (mutually, though she does her best to object) for the sultry “old maid” of the town – who goes by the name of Mary Kate Danaher.  Yep, she’s in love with her brother’s mortal enemy.

But to his great surprise it seems she prefers guys who can kiss right-side-up in the rain

This would seem to be a pretty big problem, because Mary Kate is old-fashioned enough that while although she is willing to skip a few of the traditional courting steps in light of their fiery passion and to skip straight to the old Neckin’-In-The-Ruins-In-The-Rain, she’s not exactly willing to forego her brother’s consent before heading into a marriage.  And that consent “Red” Will is absolutely positively not willing to give.  The grudge, you see.

The little-known origin of Harley Quinn

This leads a decent portion of the village to enter into a wee bit of a conspiracy.  You see, “Red” Will has for a long time been sweet on the widow Tillane, and while she despises him, the townsfolk start to spread some rumors that she’d like nothing better than to marry “Red” Will, but why, she couldn’t possibly do such a thing with Mary Kate still living under his roof.  Even the town priest gets in on this one, with the delicious line: “Well, I can’t say it’s true, and I won’t say it’s not, but there’s been talk.”  I’m pretty sure that the good Father is going to have to do at least a few Hail Marys for that little bit of truth-telling.

Anyway, the whole scheme works and “Red” Will grants his permission.  And we’re only like an hour into the movie, which makes you wonder exactly where it’s going to go from here.  Well, point of fact is that at Mary Kate’s wedding Danaher tries to put the moves on the widow Tillane and it goes…pretty poorly.  Because, of course, he was deceived.  The marriage already done he has no recourse there, but instead he withholds Mary Kate’s dowry.  And Thornton, being rich from being a pro boxer and all, thinks that this just doesn’t really matter.  But Mary Kate’s pride is wrapped up in this dowry of hers and she goes full non-consummating shrew on Thornton because of it.

Asking only workman’s wages I come looking for a job but I get no offers

“Red” Will wants to fight Thornton, but Sean continually refuses, even going so far as to flash back to the moments when he had killed a man in the ring.  Thornton’s refusal to fight for her dowry leads Mary Kate to try hopping the next train to Dublin, but as Mussolini is not in charge in Ireland the train is several hours late and Sean is able to hear of her plan to leave and drag her off of the train before it leaves, leading to a public confrontation.

Here’s where the pizza arrived.

Sorry – there are literally ZERO images of this incredibly long fight scene on Google, and I looked for like 30 minutes.  Whatever.  Take this odd re-colorized cartoony looking…thing…and pretend you’re watching a real film.

So I come back from paying for the pizza and we’re in the beginning of a huge row between Sean and “Red” Will which goes on for like fifteen minutes, punches back and forth, people thrown in the river, water thrown in people’s faces by a large bystanding crowd, a break in the pub and then more fighting, and then to my surprise at the end “Red” Will concedes, but nothing is ever said about the dowry.

Well, evidently Wikipedia tells me that while I was tipping the pizza delivery person, Sean shamed “Red” Will into giving up the dowry without violence, only to have Mary Kate throw the money into the fire to show that it wasn’t the money, it was the principle of the thing.  Then Danaher started the fight.  So, I guess that makes a bit more sense.  After the fight, it would appear that Sean and Mary Kate live out their lives about the same way that Petruchio and Katherina did, and “Red” Will would appear to be more or less mollified.  The End.

You know, I have to admit I didn’t love this movie.  Maybe another viewing could change my mind, but the whole thing pretty much revolves around Mary Kate’s shrewish behavior, which just doesn’t seem to be justified.  And John Wayne is, of course, John Wayne – which plays a lot better in the old west than in Ireland.  (The Searchers is a better film.  But at least I got to see a movie I hadn’t seen, so there’s that.)

Finally, after the aforementioned pizza whose delivery caused me to miss a pretty salient point in the previous film, we closed the night out with (in my opinion) the best film of the bunch – 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

I…I…I…don’t need a P…P…Pinkerton man, I…I…I…need a d…d…dustrag!

This film is actually bookended – a trick that I often don’t like unless it’s done right.  To be honest, I can’t even explicitly say how it is to do it right, but Liberty Valance seems to get it.  We start with Jimmy Stewart as Ransom “Rance” Stoddard – an aging U.S. Senator returning to his frontier home of Shinbone for the funeral of an unremarkable local by the nameof Tom Doniphon.  His visit causes quite the uproar in town and representatives of the local Shinbone Star newspaper ask for an exclusive interview.  Rance grants it and begins telling the story of himself and Doniphon, a flashback which takes up the near entirety of the film.

Why, I think he’s saying “Oil…lamp!”

Rance, it seems, started out as a city-born newly-minted lawyer, heading out the the frontiers to (very optimistically) practice law in an as-yet unincorporated territory of the U.S.  It’s not actually clear what his destination was, so perhaps he was ultimately heading out to, say, San Francisco, and I suppose that would make more sense than thinking that he was going to practice law in the middle of nowhere.  So let’s go with that.  As it turns out, Rance finds himself in the middle of nowhere because his stagecoach is held up by a gang of outlaws led by the notorious Liberty Valance, and standing up for justice in the situation only gets him whipped to within an inch of his life.  He is found by Tom Doniphon and brought in to Shinbone where he is nursed back to health by Doniphon’s flame (and everybody assumes future wife) Hallie.

Why, Martin Pawley, you and me been going steady since we was three years old!  ‘Bout time you found out about it.

Rance recovers, and between having nowhere else to go and being disgusted by the weakness of the local sheriff (played by Andy Devine) he sticks around, first helping out in the kitchen of the restaurant where Hallie works, then by opening up a law office, associating with the original publisher of the Shinbone Star, and running a school, teaching both young and older townsfolk (like Hallie) to read and write.

I never went in for embroidery, just results.

Meanwhile Liberty Valance continues to terrorize the townsfolk of Shinbone with impunity.  There is, of course, a confrontation between Doniphon and Valance over a knocked-over steak that Rance defuses before it devolves to violence, but eventually even Rance comes to recognize that the only way to deal with Valance will be violence and begins (poorly, one might add, and with a fair bit of mockery from Doniphon) to learn to shoot a gun.

Someone done warned me about some hides in March, you know what they was talkin’ about?

Things finally come to a head when the town gathers together to elect two representatives to send to the territorial capital where ultimately the territory will pick a delegate to send to Washington D.C. on the question of whether or not to push for statehood.  Rance and many of the townspeople are in favor of statehood, but the cattle ranchers (many of whom are said to come from north of the Picketwire river) are not in favor.  In the meeting, Rance and Dutton Peabody (the publisher of the Shinbone Star) are nominated before Valance bursts in and has his own gang nominate him as well, intending to represent the ranching interests.  Still, Rance and Peabody are duly elected (by a longshot, as would seem obvious) and Valance, not really understanding the process of democracy, is now out for revenge.

Gunfight at the OK Precinct

Valance challenges Rance to a gunfight and then beats Peabody and ransacks his office.  Doniphon urges Rance to leave town, but instead, bravely and stupidly, Rance stands up for right against the villain.  Valance toys with Rance, first shooting him in the right hand forcing him to drop the gun.  Rance picks up the gun with his left, and Valance is prepared to now shoot him down, but Rance gets off a wild shot and – bang – down goes Valance dead.  (Well, he might not be quite dead immediately, but the doctor is summoned and he just doesn’t seem to try very hard to save him, is all.)  Doniphon watches Hallie tend to Rance’s wounds once again, and drunkenly he goes home and burns down an addition that he had been building in anticipation of marrying her.

That’s me in the spotlight losing my religion

Having recovered from their wounds, Rance and Peabody head to the convention in the state capitol, where the ranching interests, led by a much-older-than-the-preacher version of John Carradine, expect to easily elect their candidate as delegate.  But Peabody somewhat unexpectedly nominates Rance, on the basis that he is the man who shot Liberty Valance.  Rance is disgusted, as being a law-and-order type he is none too proud of killing Valance, and he storms his way out of the meeting only to be confronted by none other than Tom Doniphon.  Since it’s one of the great scenes of all time, why not watch it?

Needless to say, we know that Rance is going to win that nomination and the rest of the story, well, it returns to the bookend.

On second thought, let’s not go back to Potterville

When his interview is over, having now told for the first time his true story, the editor form the Shinbone Star tears up the notes, refusing to use the story.  “This is the West, sir,” he says, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  And the story finishes up on the train back to Washington, where Rance floats the idea to Hallie of finally retiring and returning to a simple life in Shinbone, an idea she that is more than agreeable to.  Still, he can’t quite seem to shake that legend of his, that legend that he doesn’t really want.  The film closes with a train employee offering him some amenity or other, saying “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance.”  The End.

Unlike the first two of the evening, I think Liberty Valance is a practically perfect film.  The gruff Doniphon is a perfect role for Wayne, a man who sacrifices his entire future to save a romantic rival, because after all it turns out to be the right thing to do while Stewart’s idealistic Rance gives us sort of an alternate view of a character type he first played so well in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.  The bittersweet ending with Rance even now haunted by lies about his past, despite finally trying and failing to come clean about it – how else could you end this movie?  And perhaps best of all is the ambiguity of the title.  We know that someone is going to shoot Liberty Valance.  We’d figure that since Stewart was the main character, that it was him.  But once we realize that the flashback story deals with the now-deceased Doniphon, and that Doniphon is clearly the more likely to actually do it, well, maybe it was Doniphon what shot Liberty Valance.  Then of course the showdown comes, and the original angle gives us no reason to believe that it wasn’t Rance after all…until that final scene with Doniphon clears it up.  The story is expertly laid out to make you change your mind THREE times during the movie about which of the characters is the title character.  Tip of the hat to you, Mr. Ford, tip of the hat.

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