Monday 22 January 2024

Hudson’s Bay (1940)

Director: Irving Pichel
Writer: Lamar Trotti, based on incidents from the life of Pierre Esprit Radisson
Stars: Paul Muni, Gene Tierney, Laird Cregar, John Sutton, Virginia Field, Vincent Price and Nigel Bruce

Index: The First Thirty.

This is an odd movie because it’s Hollywood tackling history again and it feels every bit as inaccurate as ever, but, for the most part, it’s surprisingly accurate. Now, I never met Pierre Esprit Radisson, who died centuries before I’d even become a gleam in my father’s eye, but it feels like Paul Muni’s portrayal is pure fiction. Apparently, it isn’t, though his interpretation can be debated by the historians.

Maybe one reason why the film feels wrong is because it starts out with O Canada, which is a little out of place, given that it’s 1667 and it’s New France. O Canada was written in 1880 and didn’t become Canada’s national anthem until as late as 1980. OK, let’s let that slide and leap headlong into swashbuckler territory!

And yes, that’s how it feels when Paul Muni, as Radisson, and Laird Cregar, as his brother-in-law, Gooseberry, waltz into the government house in Albany. They’re fur trappers and the French governor doesn’t want to know about their plan to trade with the Native Americans around Hudson’s Bay, so they’re coming south to talk with the British. They have no interest either and promptly lock them up.

However, their outrageous French Canadian accents combine with their carefree attitudes and their quickness with fists to set this up as a belated colonial sequel to The Adventures of Robin Hood. Gooseberry is very Little John and his purloined jail cell key trick is an animated Disney adaptation special.

Bizarrely, they’re real, but the key character already in the cell into which they’re thrown, who seems like the most believable anywhere in the film, isn’t. That’s John Sutton, appearing in his fourth Vincent Price movie (it was only Price’s eighth), as Lord Edward Crewe, who fell foul of King Charles II and got himself exiled to a New World. However, he still has enough funds left to finance Radisson’s plans and so, a quick escape later, it’s all in motion.

The history moves along like lightning: we escape the cell, paddle a little in the river and boom, we’re at Hudson’s Bay. We talk to some Native Americans and boom, there’s a serious cargo of furs ready to go. They celebrate but a greedy New France governor confiscates their furs—licenses, you see, and fines, based on the laws he passed that morning—but boom, we’re off to London and knocking on Prince Rupert’s door in a flash. Talk about hopping the pond.

Just as we get used to Nigel Bruce playing a cousin to the king of England, we’re shown in to see that very king, Charles II, who’s dancing with his mistress, Nell Gwyn, at a lively revel.

Vincent Price makes for a superb Charles II, highlighting yet again why the studios kept on throwing him into historical roles. He doesn’t sound English but we don’t care. He sounds as if he’s a king, utterly in control of everything but matter of factly rather than arrogantly.

Virginia Field makes for a decent Nell Gwyn too, I guess, but she has almost nothing to do except whisper in Price’s ear when needed. It’s ridiculous to see her name listed in front of his on the poster, just as it’s ridiculous to see Gene Tierney listed second, as if she’s the romantic lead to Paul Muni. She plays Lady Barbara, the fiancée of Lord Crewe, but she stays behind in England whenever he goes back west, so she’s hardly in the movie.

To be fair, she’s there as often as Price, Field and Bruce, but they’re fairly listed after those actors who actually tell the story. That’s Muni, Cregar and Sutton, all of whom turn into old friends by the time the picture wraps.

I’ve always liked Paul Muni’s versatile work and he would be a great choice for a later First Thirty if only he’d made that many films. This was new to me but I’ve seen seventeen of only twenty-two and I believe that a couple of the others are lost. He was a chameleon and, if I didn’t buy his over the top French Canadian accent, oui oui, I thoroughly enjoyed his role. He plays Radisson as a backwoods genius, not remotely cultured and obviously out of place in society or the boardroom, but still shrewd, incisive and notably forward-looking. He owns this film, pure and simple.

Cregar is a lot of fun as Gooseberry, but he doesn’t have the depth that Radisson has, just the big fists and the huge heart. Sutton has the elegance, but also sells how much he grows in the wilds. He never quite loses his Britishness and his privilege as a lord but he comes close and he’s aided by the introduction of a similar character who fails to lose either.

That’s Gerald Hall, Lady Barbara’s brother, who gets talked into going back with Radisson and the others, with the unspoken assumption that he’s a pain in the ass who needs to learn how to be a real man. Spoiler: he doesn’t.

It’s fair to say that Morton Lowry is exactly what Gerald Hall needs to be, even if we want to punch him in the face in almost every scene he’s in. That’s much of the point and we cheer when he gets his just desserts. However, we’re also very aware that he has more to do in this film than anyone except the three real leads— Muni, Cregar and Sutton—but doesn’t even get his name onto the poster, while Gene Tierney gets pride of place for a couple of whispers.

The other thing not on the poster that any viewer in 2024 will immediately notice is the preponderence of inappropriate Indian jokes. Sure, this was the late 17th century and we’re dealing with colonialists, with all the privilege that suggests up front and personal, but there are a couple of points where it doesn’t seem to end. To give some credit where it’s due, there is a real Native American, Chief John Big Tree, playing a Native American, which really didn’t happen a lot back in 1940. He was one of three men who posed for James Earle Fraser when he carved the “Indian head” onto what would become known as the “Indian head nickel”.

So there are reasons not to watch this, but there are plenty of reasons to watch it too. It’s a surprising amount of fun, for a start. It keeps moving and never gets boring. It’s not comedy but it’s light-hearted and often raises a smile or a laugh. Muni is fantastic, even with a poor accent. Cregar and Sutton are solid. Price is a wonderful Charles II, stealing a few scenes off Muni but then vanishing from the film again.

And then there’s how much we laugh at the ridiculous history only to read up and find it’s mostly true. Sure, Lord Crewe didn’t exist but Radisson and Gooseberry did and it’s possible that they were every bit as legendary as they are in this picture.

No comments: