I want to continue the discussion of Gone With the Wind that we started this past week, but have to interrupt to report that I couldn’t be happier for my friend and colleague Scott Eyman for the success of his new book, John Wayne: The Life and Legend, released April 1 by Simon & Schuster. It hit the New York Times bestseller list at mid-month and is, as of this writing, #1 on the Amazon bestseller list for Movies/History & Criticism and #8 in Biographies. A writer can work a lifetime and never achieve success like this. Of course Scott has emerged as the preeminent Hollywood biographer and he’s done very well with his past books, particularly Lion of Hollywood, his Louis B. Mayer bio that was of such help in researching Fireball themes.
All this week Scott has been sitting with Robert Osborne in prime time on Turner Classic Movies introducing the best of John Wayne’s pictures and last night it was one of my favorites, Red River. Back when I was a silly, uneducated youngster, I was enthralled with Lonesome Dove, in part because of the vivid depiction of that cattle drive up to Montana. I had thought what a wonderful thing they dreamed up for television, not knowing that the epic cattle drive had long before been envisioned and executed by director Howard Hawks in black and white for Red River, and that Lonesome Dove was a pale, small-scale update.
I’ve taken John Wayne way too much for granted my whole life and felt free to skip some of his pictures, including The High and the Mighty, which I discussed here a couple months ago, and also Red River, which I only discovered in recent years. I didn’t know until last night, when Scott told us that Red River was actually produced in 1946 and sat around for a couple years, that it represents Montgomery Clift’s first screen work. I find Clift mesmerizing in this picture, young, lean, tough, handsome, and so damn capable with his new type of underplaying that would soon change Hollywood. I’ve never read a Clift bio, so I didn’t know how he learned to ride a horse like he does in Red River, as if born in the saddle. He has this thing where he hops up into the stirrup like some sort of trick rider. I know he became obsessed with bringing realism to his roles, as confirmed by Howard Hawks later.
Speaking of Clift to Peter Bogdonovich, Hawks said, “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. 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.” So that answers my question about the riding, and that hop. Clift was one rare specimen, and looked every bit the equal of John Wayne in the saddle after only two weeks of training.
I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the peculiar way Howard Hawks handles dialogue, but since at least three Hawks pictures are on my favorites list, I don’t consider Hawksian quirks a deal breaker. You know, he has actors step on the lines of other actors, which can emulate realism when done right, but often his players aren’t quite up to it and come off instead as self-conscious. Hawks also has his women constantly saying their man’s name in the clinches. “You know what I’m talking about, Matthew, don’t you, Matthew?” All right already with the Matthews!
Last night, Eyman referred to Red River as something like “nine-tenths a classic,” and I agree with him. Here we have this spellbinding epic with noirish qualities, and suddenly, toward the end of the last reel, a Damon Runyon picture breaks out. Here we see the worst of Howard Hawks and his obsession with sassy dames, throwing figurative cold water on a perfectly set up, deadly confrontation between two beautifully written and played characters in Wayne’s Dunson and Clift’s Garth. Such a shame the way it ends. Two hours of buildup, the pace ratcheting up until there’s so much going on in every frame that you can’t take it all in. Then…that? As Scott put it, “Hawks blinked.” Eyman described how Mr. Dunson was supposed to die at fade out, but Hawks couldn’t bring himself to see it end that way. Instead, Joanne Dru’s Tess Millay, a character just recently introduced into the narrative, breaks up the big fight, and Wayne and Clift laugh and make up while sprawled there in the dust. It’s an all-wrong ending. It was all wrong in 1948 and it’s all wrong today.
But Hawks was so damn good that I am forced to forgive him his trespasses. Tell me you don’t have a Hawks picture somewhere on your favorites list. Twentieth Century, maybe? Bringing Up Baby? His Girl Friday? Ball of Fire? Sergeant York? He did two of Bogart’s best pictures in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, and also two other favorites of mine, The Thing (from Another World) and Rio Bravo.
Another “so damn good” ingredient in Red River is the cinematography of Russell Harlan. When you see the way he frames up a cattle drive, with no CG effects and thousands of cattle and cowboys visible going back a quarter mile as Wayne and Clift play a scene in foreground, you think this must be the most gifted cameraman in Hollywood. But Harlan was a journeyman who cut his teeth on Hopalong Cassidy westerns and would move on after Red River to photograph Gun Crazy and Tarzan and the Slave Girl, proof once again that Hollywood was after all a factory chock-full of highly skilled cinematographers. No time to sit around dreaming of art. We must shoot! They’ll need this picture next month in Hoboken!
So thank you, Scott, for a very enjoyable Thursday night, and congratulations on the release of John Wayne: The Life and Legend. My goal this weekend is to go to my closest independent bookstore and buy a copy. In the meantime, may the awards and acclaim roll in.