Monday 15 June 2009

Duel in the Sun (1946)

Director: King Vidor
Stars: Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Gregory Peck, Lionel Barrymore, Herbert Marshall, Lillian Gish, Walter Huston and Charles Bickford
Opening with a orchestral prelude backing a supposedly western vista that looks like the moor from Wuthering Heights in the background, merely tinged orange, and an Easter Island statue in the foreground, this is an unashamed attempt on the part of producer David O Selznick to replicate the epic look and feel of Gone with the Wind. After ten minutes, we get a proud voice proclaiming 'Overture to Duel in the Sun', and sure enough there's another few minutes of overture, at least to a more western backdrop. Then again it's set up with the word 'Overture' actually there on the screen, suggesting one of those self improvement posters, though they wouldn't exist for another half century at least.

Eventually we get past the credits and we find out that our Easter Island statue is really in Texas and the Comanches called it Squaw's Head Rock. Of course there are myths and legends and all sorts of hokum, most of it tied to a half breed called Pearl Chavez. She's our leading lady, played by Jennifer Jones who'd acquired a pretty good tan since The Song of Bernadette three years earlier. Naturally she got the part because she was Selznick's girlfriend; a few years later she became his wife. Is that unfair? Yes, but c'mon, what are we supposed to think?

She doesn't look particularly much like a half breed, but then again her full breed mother is played by Tilly Losch, who was born in Austria-Hungary and became the Countess of Carnarvon by marrying the son of the man who discovered Tutankhamun's tomb. Her father is played by Herbert Marshall, but we don't get to see much of him because after a flamboyant dance number in a bar, mom heads out for an illicit rendezvous and dad shoots them both dead before handing himself over to the law to be hanged by the neck until he joined them.
So after ten minutes of overblown camp we follow newly orphaned Pearl to Paradise Flats, the Paris of the Pecos. No, I'm not kidding and no, this isn't a Yosemite Sam cartoon. She's sent here to stay with her cousins who run a million acre ranch and who are a casting agent's dream. The Senator, that's Hon Jackson Tilt McCanles, is Lionel Barrymore, already in a wheelchair because of his arthritis and a hip injury. Unsurprisingly he's the sort of irascible old codger you might expect, though he's a little more intolerant than his usual characters. Mrs McCanles, Laura Belle to her friends, is possibly the greatest actress to ever grace the silver screen, Lillian Gish, already 34 years into her acting career even though this film was released in 1946. She was mostly retired by this point, so only had 12 more films left spread over the next 41 years.

The McCanlesses have two sons, and sure enough one of them is a good boy and the other's a wild stallion. Given that they're played by Gregory Peck and Joseph Cotten, you could easily guess which is playing which, but you'd be wrong. Peck is the wild one, a real handful of a son called Lewt who racks up $16,000 bills at gambling halls called the Last Chance, and Cotten is the quiet and decent soul, Jesse, who wants to give something back to his state instead of just taking from it. And the scary thing about this film is that none of this talent, not one single legendary Hollywood acting soul, is given the slightest thing to do.

I had a lot of problems with Gone with the Wind, which is nigh on universally acclaimed as an undying classic, but my problems didn't have anything to do with the sweep and the majesty of the thing. Whether I cared in the slightest for any of the characters in that film or not, it did at least play like a real epic that had a real epic story to tell. This plays like a cheap evasion of an epic. Sure, it has a lot of horses and a lot of extras to sit on them; it has a lot of land and it has a lot of dynamic painted cloud formations to sit behind it; and it certainly has the star power that any budding filmmaker could only dream of. But it doesn't do anything with any of it.

Only an hour in do we finally get to something of potential substance: the railroad is coming through Texas, courtesy of Otto Kruger and Harry Carey, and it's running close to the McCanles ranch. Sen McCanles is fiercely protective of his million acres and don't want no two bit railroad running through it. So the story finally has something to do and I can't help but laugh my ass off because all I can think of is the beginning of Blazing Saddles. As the good ol' boys ride up to the fence for their big showdown, all that came to mind was real nigger work songs and dang near losing a fifteen dollar handcart.

But we're saved from an actual story by the cavalry. Literally. What amounts to maybe seven minutes of screen time is comprised of three minutes of Senator McCanles's men gathering, one minute of plot which is just enough time for Jesse to defect from the dark side, and then three more minutes of the cavalry riding in to save the day. In other words, in the mindset of this film, lots of men riding around on horseback is six times more important than the first hint of actual story in an hour of running time.

The end result is more than embarrassing. It's pretty close to infuriating how much talent and money was wasted here, because there's undeniably a lot of both. But there are films where a lot of money is spent to look big and there are films where a lot of money is spent to look like a lot of money. This feels like it tried at both and ended up looking like a lot of money getting wasted on a cheap piece of trash. A piece of crap is a piece of crap however much you coat it in gold, whose names you can conjure up to decorate your poster and how much you want to set your wife up in some kinky roleplaying fantasy.
Jennifer Jones may look gorgeous in this film in her fake tan but she eats up the scenery worse than Lionel Barrymore, who at least is Lionel Barrymore and thus always worth watching even as an inveterate scenery chewer. Lillian Gish is utterly wasted as Mrs McCanles, which is nothing short of a crime. Gregory Peck tries to be nasty and cruel as Lewt but we just can't buy it because he's too darn nice, especially when he turns into a Saturday morning serial villain as cliched as any you've seen. Joseph Cotten plays the good son pretty well but he's a victim of the material as much as anyone else.

And if these names weren't enough for Selznick to waste, there are more hiding a little further down the credits. The opening narration is done by Orson Welles. Walter Huston shows up as a priest called Jubal the Sinkiller, but there's not enough of him. There's not enough of Charles Bickford either who shows up effectively just to show how nasty Lewt can be. Otto Kruger gets to show his face a couple of times. Harry Carey doesn't get that much but he does a great job with what little he gets. Butterfly McQueen gets more screen time than all of these put together, as a simple minded maid reiterating the same character trait over and over and over again.

But it isn't their fault, any of them. I don't know how good or bad Niven Busch's source novel is, but it only 'suggested' this overblown trite piece of cheesy melodrama so perhaps he's not at fault. Selznick himself wrote the screenplay, with help from Oliver H P Garrett, which possibly explains a lot. After all David O Selznick may have been the legendary Hollywood producer to define them all but not a soul on this planet is ever going to remember him as a writer. Ben Hecht had a hand in it too but was probably happy that his name never got attached to the finished product. In fact he probably paid them to take his name off the thing.

At the end of the day I'm still trying to work out which is the bigger blot on the career of a scary amount of amazingly talented people: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace or this. It's close. Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn. In fact I almost do, because it comes very close to being a star studded classic Hollywood version of The Room: it is utterly ludicrous but entirely unintentionally because Selznick honestly thought he was making the next Gone with the Wind. If there were midnight movies in 1946 this would have had a dedicated audience following it around and howling with laughter. I'm sure there's somewhere we could throw spoons.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I bought this movie because of the cast list and my liking of westerns. Boy was I disappointed! I think I lasted about 30 minutes before turning it off. Probably gave it away to some unsuspecting friend.