The following was written by John McElwee and posted by him on his blog Greenbriar Picture Shows, on January 9, 2011. It is reprinted here with Mr. McElwee’s kind permission. If you get the chance, I highly recommend a visit to Greenbriar Picture Shows (just click on the link). I think once you do, you will become a regular reader. Great articles, great movie reviews, just an all around wonderful blog. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it!
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To think we English speakers have gone years thinking Big Jim McLain was merely John Wayne fighting Communists. Little did I realize BJM was an all-purpose commodity easily adaptable to market needs here and over there, as evidenced by Euro posters at right and below. Marijuana, their reimagining of Jim McLain as drug-buster thanks to overdubbing and judicious edits, was customized for German, Italian and who knows what other foreign sites. Makes sense inasmuch as continentals vested little in our stateside struggle with Red hijinks, a punk enterprise for Yank-heroic Wayne to be concerning himself with in any case. Look at Big Jim McLain and see how easy its jigsaw might mix or match. Remove opener/closing portions, revolved around HUAC hearings, and this pic could be about anything, so devilishly simple are changes you'd apply to its one-size-fits-all format. John Wayne produced the show with partner Robert Fellows, his first independent under that banner, and I'm wondering if he thought up the idea. Overseas money was vital for breaking even by the fifties. Restricting appeal to US markets was no viable option. Watch Big Jim McLain and note how flexible it is to any topic in the deck. Hawaii-bound Wayne could be investigating contraband pineapples for choices handlers enjoyed with scissors and subbed voicing here, Big Jim McLain itself more than a ripe candidate for 2011 You Tube mash-upping.
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Variety reported the film as having come about as result of Warners being unable to find a "suitable yarn" for Wayne to fulfill his 1952 installment of a one-a-year deal they'd shook on earlier. Operation Pacific had been the last, with follow-up overdue. WB proposed The Sea Chase, featuring Wayne as a trade-described "Nazi sea captain," said part understandably Duke-nixed (he'd play it in modified mode later). The star had been spoiling toward independence after a fashion of names he'd surpassed (or nearly so) boxoffice-wise. New dealing would call for he and Fellows to deliver a brace of shows in addition to ones Wayne was previous pledged to, first of which, Jim McLain, was found and developed by the team. Warners agreed to advance $750,000 toward its making, a crew headed for extensive location in the Hawaiian islands, that site also used for Fox's Bird Of Paradise and MGM's Pagan Love Song, both then-recently in release. Wayne wouldn't cheat on scenics for Big Jim McLain. Virtually all his outdoor stuff, and much of the interiors, were shot against real background, process screens used but sparingly (only a week to ten days scheduled for studio lensing). All this was fill-up for audiences who'd not experienced island vistas so generously ladled out, Wayne himself and not mere second units enjoying it with his public. I'm guessing Big Jim McLain did a lot for Hawaii tourism. Watching it now, especially in HD, makes me almost want to fly there ...
John Wayne & Nancy Olson. Click to enlarge.
Let's forget politics and consider what's delightful about Big Jim McLain. First, it's John Wayne with what's left of his hair down (age forty-five circa 1952) and as relaxed here as ever I've seen him in modern dress. That last is a key. How often did this actor go jaw-busting in casual attire we could shop for in hometowns? (and yes, there were fashion tie-ins). JW spends much of BJM in Hawaiian shirt and sandals, one punch at a low-level Red administered not in reprisal for espionage, but for the guy's having rumpled Duke's sportswear. Big Jim McLain wasn't meant then or now to be taken too seriously, whatever its ideological licks at beginning and end. Clear forecast is here of a laid-back Wayne to come, his performance keyed to make clear this star's recognition of what fans most enjoyed seeing him do. JW-produced comfort westerns ahead were very much built on foundation of Big Jim McLain.
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I'll hand it to Wayne for casting even-taller James Arness as investigating sidekick, rendering the pic's title something of a misnomer for the latter's being real-life Big(er) Jim. There is Nancy Olson for Wayne's love interest (an unmarried couple here, but for all the world, they seem to be living together). Of his non-Ford romantic pairings, this may be JW's most appealing. Much time goes to sight-seeing and terrace dining with the pair, obvious plants to show off Hawaii and never mind slowing of pace, this is like observing courtly Wayne off-hours dating, a privileged glimpse fans might do well treasuring (JW's second marriage cracking up as BJM was being shot). A segment I particularly liked has Wayne and Olson walking full length of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel's elegant lobby, gawking tourists in lower-lit background no doubt storing memory of this encounter with movie stars on location. Big Jim McLain pretty much gives up on action quotient given fact that heavies here are of intellectual bent, being Communist after all, and where's sense of having Wayne lay fragile Alan Napier out cold? Fists connect seldom, and mostly with straw henchmen put there as punch bags for Duke and staff who'll be doing stills and trailers. Big Jim McLain was/is a model star vehicle on autopilot setting. They couldn't all be Red River and The Quiet Man, after all. Ticket sales would make up for doubts expressed in reviews (buncha snooty easterners, as dismissed by Wayne), with two million in domestic rentals, $661,000 foreign, and ultimate profit of $1.2 million. Warners rewarded Big Jim McLain's success (and that of Plunder Of The Sun, also from Wayne-Fellows) by extending pact with the producing pair to four years, which would give WB and Wayne among their biggest paydays of the 50's.
Some more great images from Big Jim McLain! Just click on any image to enlarge it.
The following was written by Toby Roan of the "50 Westerns from the 50's" blog, and is reblogged here with Toby's kind permission (Thanks Toby!). If you get the chance, take a gander at Toby's blog by clicking the link above. I guarantee you're gonna love it!
Blu-ray Review: Hondo (1953)
May 22, 2012 by Toby at 50 Westerns from the 50’s
A Wayne-Fellows Production
Directed by John Farrow
Produced by Robert Fellows
Screenplay by James Edward Grant
Based on a story (“The Gift Of Cochise”) by Louis L’Amour
Photography: Robert Burks, ASC and Archie Stout, ASC
Editor: Ralph Dawson, ACE
Music: Emil Newman and Hugo Friedhofer
Technical Advisor: Major Philip Kieffer
CAST: John Wayne (Hondo Lane), Geraldine Page (Angie Lowe), Ward Bond (Buffalo Baker), Michael Pate (Vittorio), James Arness (Lennie), Rodolfo Acosta (Silva), Leo Gordon (Ed Lowe), Tom Irish (Lt. McKay), Lee Aaker (Johnny Lowe), Paul Fix (Major Sherry), Rayford Barnes.
Over the years, a number of things have kept Hondo from being recognized as the fine Western it is. First, there’s a tendency to discount all 50s 3-D films as slaves to a gimmick. Next, there’s the fact that it was released the same year as, and has a few similarities to, George Stevens’ Shane (1953) — which has taken its place as one of the genre’s giants. Then consider that Hondo sits among pictures like Rio Grande (1950), The Searchers (1956) and Rio Bravo (1959) in John Wayne’s filmography — it’s easy to be overlooked in a crowd like that. Then, and probably the toughest of these hurdles to overcome, is the decade or so the picture was virtually impossible to see.
Original novel by Louis L'Amour
This absence was brought about by Wayne’s estate and included all the films produced by Wayne-Fellows and Batjac. (When Robert Fellows was bought out, the company was renamed Batjac, after the shipping line in 1949’s Wake Of The Red Witch.) The Batjac pictures resurfaced on DVD in 2005, with a very nice edition of Hondo being one of the highpoints.
Hondo began as a Louis L’Amour story, “The Gift Of Cochise,” which James Edward Grant, Wayne’s scriptwriter of choice, adapted for Wayne-Fellows. (It appeared in the July 5, 1952 issue of Collier’s.) John Farrow was signed to direct, and Glenn Ford was offered the lead. Ford didn’t want to work with Farrow after his experience on a previous Wayne-Fellows picture, Plunder Of The Sun (1953). Unwilling to fire the director, Wayne took another look at the script and decided to do it himself.
Wayne is Hondo Lane, a Cavalry dispatch rider who turns up at the small ranch of Angie Lowe (Geraldine Page), located in the middle of Apache territory. He’s on foot, with his dog, having lost his horse fighting the Apaches. She says her husband is away and will be back shortly. Seeing through her lie — her husband doesn’t seem to be coming back — he urges her and her son (Lee Aaker) to seek safety from the Apaches. She’s never had trouble with the Apache chief Vittorio (Michael Pate) before, and decides to stay. From there things get a bit more complicated, as Wayne ends up killing Page’s ne’er-do-well husband (Leo Gordon) and being captured and tortured by Vittorio. There’s an exciting wrap-up as Wayne helps the Cavalry lead a number of settlers out of Apache territory.
Grant’s script expanded the L’Amour short story considerably, and L’Amour then novelized the screenplay. Published to tie in the film’s opening, it was a bestseller — and is still in print today.
John Wayne in 3-D
Wayne-Fellows was in a distribution deal with Warner Bros., who’d seen runaway success with House Of Wax (1953) in 3-D, so it soon came to pass that Hondo was to be shot in 3-D. It would be the first time Warner Bros. would use its new All-Media camera rig — and the first of Wayne-Fellow’s productions in color (WarnerColor).
All the Batjac pictures benefited from Duke’s working relationships with some of the best actors and technical people around. Behind the camera were cameraman Archie Stout and John Ford, who visited the location and ended up shooting a bit of second unit stuff. The cast included third-billed Ward Bond, Paul Fix in a character part, and James Arness — under contract to Wayne’s company and still a few years from being recommending by Duke for Gunsmoke.
One clear break from what, and who, we expect from a John Wayne Movie turned out to be his leading lady — Geraldine Page.
Paul Fix: “Duke’s agent, Charles Feldman, also represented Geraldine Page who was a successful actress on the New York stage. Robert Fellows offered her the part without testing her… Duke was dismayed when he first saw her. She had bad teeth, so the first thing Fellows did was send her to a dentist who worked on her for three days.”
Cast and crew arrived in Camargo, Mexico, with shooting to start June 11, 1953. Thanks to the technical difficulties of shooting 3-D on location, things got off to a rather slow start. Setups were few and far between.
Leo Gordon: “They had that great big camera that was the size of a small truck.”
Geraldine Page: “It was a very temperamental machine. So we had lots of time to sit under the broiling Mexican summer sun.”
Wayne and mogul Jack Warner had been communicating via telegram from the beginning, often with Wayne complaining about the delays and expense of working in 3-D. Jack Warner saw some dailies and wired on June 18 about more close-ups: “Director is not moving you and Geraldine close enough to camera. Everything seems to be too far away.”
Wayne replied two days later: “Farrow has done everything but play music to get camera in for close shots… cameraman is over cautious for fear front office will scream eyestrain. Will show cameraman your wire.”
The “cameraman” Wayne refers to is Archie Stout, a Batjac veteran who shared duties on Hondo with Robert Burks, who’d worked on House Of Wax and would go on to shoot some of Hitchcock’s finest films. But the 3-D cameras and frustrated DPs weren’t the only things troubling Wayne. He was in the middle of a divorce from his wife Chata. Their relationship was volatile, to say the least. Then there were his scenes with Page.
James Arness: “Acting with Geraldine Page was difficult for Duke, since their styles were completely different. Here was dynamic Wayne, who wanted to move things right along regardless of meaningless details, and a very intense costar who wanted to know the meaning of every scene she was in… as they got used to each other, things worked out fine.”
What’s more, the Mexican temperatures sometimes topped 120 degrees.
James Arness: “It was mid-summer, and blazing hot down there. We worked 14 hours a day in the sun… After each day’s shooting, we’d all race back to our run-down Mexican motel and hit the bar to quench our thirst. We ordered anything, just so the glass was full of ice. After a few day’s, everyone came down with Montezuma’s revenge… The problem was solved when we realized the water for the ice in our drinks was coming from a polluted river near the hotel.”
Lee Aaker: “We were in Mexico for three months doing it… most of all, I remember John Wayne as being very nice to me.”
After wrapping in early August, the picture was quickly edited and scored for a Thanksgiving premiere in Houston. Its wide release in January of 1954 was very successful. There’s been a lot of debate over the years about the picture’s 3-D engagements. Some claim it played mostly flat, but that’s not the case. Almost all of its first run was in 3-D.
Whether flat or in 3-D, Hondo is an excellent film — not a great one. Its smaller size turns out to be a large part of its appeal, and it seems to hint at the look and tone of The Searchers (1956).
Wayne’s performance is excellent. Despite his trouble working with Geraldine Page, their scenes together are very good, some of his best work. It’s easy to wish Wayne had called up Maureen O’Hara for Mrs. Lowe, but Page brings lot to the film. She was perfectly cast, and received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
Ward Bond is terrific, making a big impression with relatively little screen time as Buffalo Baker, a grizzled old friend of Hondo’s. Leo Gordon is perfectly slimy as Ed Lowe — boy, am I glad when he gets shot. But acting honors have to go to Michael Pate as the Apache chief. He somehow manages to make Vittorio scary and sympathetic at the same time. Hondo is held up as an early example of Hollywood treating Native Americans and their culture with respect. It does it without preaching or sacrificing the action audiences came for. This is a cowboy movie that doesn’t need 3-D glasses to give you plenty of depth.
Paramount’s Blu-ray of Hondo is, in some ways, simply a high-definition version of their 2-D DVD from 2005. Both contain the same bonus material — an excellent collection of commentaries, documentaries, trailers, photos and more. (A couple of the documentaries didn’t make it over from DVD.) But the Blu-ray’s 1.75 ratio makes all the difference. This is clearly how this film was meant to be seen. It’s one of the nicest WarnerColor transfers I’ve seen, with its harsher contrast helping you feel the heat Wayne and company suffered through. Of course, there’s the typical jump in sharpness and detail that comes with Blu-ray.
Audio is clean with a nice range, and I much preferred the original mono to the 5.1 mix. (I have to say it’s been the audio, as much the video, that has really impressed me with the shift to Blu-ray.)
Hondo is an essential 50s Western, if for no reason other than Wayne made so few cowboy pictures during the decade. And for those wondering if Hondo’s worth the upgrade to Blu-ray, put on your old DVD. Look at all the dead space at the top and bottom. Yep, it’s worth it.
SOURCES: James Arness: An Autobiography; Duke, We’re Glad We Knew You; Duke: The Life And Image Of John Wayne; this fabulous article by Bob Furmanek and Jack Theakston; and more.
© 2009 – 2012 Toby Roan, Used by Permission
The following review of Rio Bravo was written by Colin over at the "Riding The High Country - Reviews and Ramblings" blog, back on March 24, 2008. I have to tell y'all, if you get the chance (no pun intended!), take some time and check out Colin's blog (just click on the above link). Not only is he a first rate writer and reviewer, but his blog is Top Notch! Thanks Colin for allowing me to re-blog this!
“A game-legged old man and a drunk. Is that all you got?”
“That’s what I’ve got.”
When Sheriff John T Chance (John Wayne) hands that laconic reply to the question from his friend Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond), it more or less sums up what the whole film is trying to say. Anybody who has ever seen a few Howard Hawks movies will know just how much store he set by the idea of professionalism. The small group of self-contained professionals is a recurrent theme in his work, and Rio Bravo may be the best example of this.
I won’t go into the plot in great detail here since it is, frankly, a little thin for a film with a running time creeping up towards two and a half hours. Chance arrests Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) for murder and must hold him in the town jail until the Marshal arrives. All the time, the town is under a virtual state of siege from the hired gunmen of Joe’s brother, Nathan (John Russell). Throw in a typically Hawksian romance between Chance and a poker playing drifter called Feathers (Angie Dickinson), and that’s it. However, this is really a character driven movie, and the plot functions mainly to provide the necessary circumstances to allow the characters to interact. It is this interaction that elevates Rio Bravo to the status of one of the great westerns. I’d challenge anyone to sit through this and not feel for these people by the end; more than that, you actually get the sense of coming to know them. Think about Chance’s coolly competent lawman who’s reduced almost to an awkward schoolboy when confronted with a sassy, attractive woman; Dude’s (Dean Martin) drunken deputy who must face down his personal demons if he’s ever to retrieve his self-respect from the whiskey bottle where he left it; and let’s not forget Stumpy (Walter Brennan), the trigger-happy cripple whose cackling and complaining adds so much warmth and humour to it all.
John Wayne gives one of his most relaxed performances in this film and while this has been criticised by some, I think it fits the pace of the piece. The acting is understated and just plain likable from a man whose talents many are quick to criticise and slow to acknowledge. It’s hard to imagine any other actor playing this part with the natural confidence displayed by Wayne. Dean Martin’s Dude remains convincing as the character gradually transforms himself from a pitiful rummy fishing for drink money in spittoons into a man proud enough to enter by the front door once again. When the doubts and temptations assail him and threaten to haul him back into oblivion, you can’t help rooting for him. The great Walter Brennan has a high time with his role as Stumpy and manages to steal nearly every scene he appears in. The only weak performances come from Angie Dickinson and Ricky Nelson. But if you remember that Dickinson was meant to provide eye candy, Nelson was there to draw in contemporary youth, and that the real focus was on Chance, Dude and Stumpy then it doesn’t seem so important.
While most western directors liked to get out into the wide open spaces, Hawks opted to shoot the entire film within the confines of the town. This has the effect of creating both a claustrophobic tension and a comfortable coziness. In keeping with the theme of professional lawmen, the film itself exudes a slick professional feel. The maturity of Hawks direction can be seen in the first five minutes of the movie, when the status of the main characters and the basis of the plot are presented clearly and explicitly without one word of dialogue being spoken. The script by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett may develop at a leisurely pace, but it’s always logical and it’s packed full of memorable lines. Mention should also be made of the score by Dimitri Tiomkin; it complements the action perfectly and the use of the Deguello is yet another of the joys the film has to offer.
I can’t finish this piece without referring to the fact that Rio Bravo was Howard Hawks’ riposte to High Noon. Hawks took exception to the idea of a lawman running around town desperately seeking help from a scared and apathetic citizenry. This was anathema to a man who worshipped at the altar of the professional ethic. To Hawks, a man ought to play the cards dealt to him regardless of the odds stacked against him. Now I have no interest in discussing the politics, either implicit or explicit, of these two films but I do find myself drawn more often to Rio Bravo. While I like and admire High Noon, it concentrates on the selfish fears of men where Rio Bravo celebrates the camaraderie and warmth of humanity – I know which I find more appealing.
For a long time Rio Bravo was only available on DVD on a bare-bones edition. Last year saw the release of a 2-disc SE with a commentary and lots of special features. Initial reports were that the transfer was significantly darker than the old version and I was wary of the upgrade. However, I eventually decided to take a chance and was pleasantly surprised. The new transfer is darker but then the old one was too washed out and faded anyway. It’s not perfect but I do feel it’s an improvement on the original and I have no regrets whatsoever about purchasing it. Maybe Rio Bravo isn’t the best western ever made but, if not, it’s only a few paces behind. Over the years, I’ve probably viewed this film more than any other and I continue to enjoy it – that’s as good a recommendation as I can offer.
Posted by Colin on March 24, 2008
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