So Red the River, in Black & White

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Buy it, consume it, spread the word about it.

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.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

John Wayne and Montgomery Clift

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.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Adding to the realism, Hawks chooses to show an arrow striking Joanne Dru in the shoulder, nailing her to the side of a wagon. She barely flinches, and Montgomery Clift reacts with bemusement rather than concern.

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.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Cinematographer Russell Harlan and director Howard Hawks capture the sweep and grime of a cattle drive long before budget-friendly CG effects are around to help.

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.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

The furious, hate-filled climax that is soon to be spoiled by Joanne Dru.

 

3 comments

  1. Red River has long been one of my favourite westerns, epic western musical score by Dimitri Tiomkin, the beautiful cinematography, which you’ve also pointed out, Robert, as well as one of the great performances of Wayne’s career in what has been referred to as his Captain Bligh type of role.

    However, that’s all the more reason why I tend to resent the film’s flaws. You’ve already pointed out, rightly, the film’s resolution, Robert, which is a cop out, in my opinion. There’s also the small issue of anyone taking a fist fight between the Duke and Monty Clift seriously. Yes, Hawks stages it well, and has an effective low camera angle shot on Clift as he looks down on Wayne after flooring him. But, sorry, I just can’t take a skinny little guy like Clift seriously as a physical opponent of Wayne in a mano-a-mano jaw smashing exhibition.

    And as jaw droppingly attractive as Joanne Dru was, I have always had a real problem with her her portrayal of a tough, stick-by-her-man Hawksian leading lady. And the film spends waaaay too much time in my eyes on the Clift-Dru relationship at the expense of Wayne’s fascinatingly ruthless, relentless character disappearing from the screen for lengthy portions.

    I know, it almost sounds as if I don’t like Red River. But I really do for the reasons stated at the top.

    There was also some petty nastiness on the part of Hawks that took place during production, however. Hawks had his designs on Joanne Dru (much as he had had on Lauren Bacall during the making of To Have and Have Not, only to have Bogart take up with her). By way of compensation during that film, the director then picked up with a supporting player, Dolores Moran, whose part in the film would be afterward be slashed, as the film’s producers decided to hype Bacall.

    During Red River, however, Hawks was again sidelined by the lady of his designs as it was co-star John Ireland that won Dru’s attention and heart (they would marry). Hawks would gain his vengeance upon Ireland by reducing the role of Cherry, played by Ireland in the film.

    Hawks was a great filmmaker but hearing about his peccadilloes like this, well, it makes him very human, you could say, like so many others in Hollywood at that time. (And, to be honest, his quiet direction of actors still make him sound far easier on the nerves of his cast than, say, Pappy Ford or a Mike Curtiz). Just don’t interfere with Hawks’ planned love life, however.

    Aside from that, there are a lot of other Hawks films that I like besides Red River. I want to make special reference to Sergeant York, however,primarily because it is a Hawks film that the Hawks aficionados do not like to discuss – unlike a Red River or Rio Bravo or Only Angels Have Wings, for example. And this I find ironic since, aside from being a wonderfully atmospheric production with some exceptional performances, York is the only film of Hawks’ career to bring him an Oscar nomination. I suspect, in retrospect, though this is just a guess, that the less-than-subtle propaganda aspect of York may have turned some of them off. But, at the same time, those same Hawks admirers don’t appear to be similarly affected by Air Force, a film that has always left me a little bit cold.

    For my money, Sergeant York ranks as one of the great accomplishments of the director’s career.

    1. Tom, our frustrations with Hawks and Red River are just about identical and we both just want to be able to love this picture for the masterpiece is, or should be. But I for one can’t fault his weakness for dames for fear of having to dodge lightning bolts.

      Thanks for mentioning Tiomkin’s score, which I forgot to do. It never strays far from that one theme, but it’s perfect.

      There are so many great character actors in this picture–Walter Brennan, Paul Fix, Hank Worden, Tom Tyler–but John Ireland as Cherry Valance takes the cake. What a fantastic mix of self-preservation and loyalty. I don’t know if anyone else notices the weird chemistry between Clift and Ireland as rival gunfighters, but it sure seems to be there.

  2. Robert, it’s wasn’t Hawks’ inclinations towards being a womanizer than I was criticizing (he’s part of a very large Hollywood club there) so much as his pettiness at reducing John Ireland’s role in Red River as vengeance for the actor having cramped his opportunities with the leading lady.

    It’s a lucky thing for Bogart that he was an A lister (as well as the star of To Have and Have Not) or who knows what a director who could be vindictive might have attempted there, as well. Bogart was money to Warner Brothers while John Ireland was an actor on the rise who was expendable. Since Ireland did go on to have a film career of some substance and he did marry Joanne Dru, I can’t feel too sorry for him. But that was in spite of Hawks’ efforts, though I agree with you that, reduced role or not, he is still quite effective in Red River. Imagine, though, how even greater his contribution to the film might have been if the director hadn’t been on the randy make for Miss Dru.

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