Dark Command (1940)

Dark Command (1940)

“I don’t know much about the law; ain’t had much book learning. But the good Lord gave me a nose for smelling a horse thief a mile off — and what you need in these parts is a marshal that’s better at smelling than spelling.”

Synopsis:
When a Texas cowhand (John Wayne) rides into Kansas with his business partner (Gabby Hayes), he falls instantly in love with a beautiful blonde (Claire Trevor) whose brother (Roy Rogers) is a wannabe cowboy and whose father (Porter Hall) runs the local bank — but soon he is competing with the town’s schoolteacher (Walter Pidgeon) for both Trevor’s love and a job as the town’s marshal.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Claire Trevor Films
  • John Wayne Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Raoul Walsh Films
  • Sheriffs and Marshalls
  • Walter Pidgeon Films
  • Westerns

Review:
Ten years after giving John Wayne his first leading role in The Big Trail (1930), Raoul Walsh once again paired with Wayne for this western loosely based on Quantrill’s Raiders, a pro-Confederate group of guerrilla fighters. Unfortunately, the character arcs presented here — Wayne’s transition from an illiterate strongman who intentionally punches out men’s teeth in order to garner business for his “dentist” partner, and Pidgeon’s transition from a strait-laced schoolteacher to a marauding villain — are too far-fetched to believe, and Trevor’s character is given little to do other than waver between both her would-be beaus. The most notable performance is by Marjorie Main as Pidgeon’s no-nonsense mother, who is for some reason posing undercover as his maid; it’s odd to see her in a completely non-comedic role. Also of note is a graphic sequence involving a wagon with horses tumbling into a river:

As described in TCM’s article:

Easily the most unforgettable moment in Dark Command is an amazing stunt orchestrated by Yakima Canutt. Canutt and several other stunt men slid down a chute into a river forty feet below…along with a wagon and an entire team of horses. It’s an indelible sight for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that the horses were put in great danger for the sake of a piece of celluloid. This stunt, and several others that ended up killing animals in The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), alerted the ASPCA that major changes needed to take place in the handling of animals while filming motion pictures. Today, any picture that includes animals has an ASPCA member on hand to keep the filmmakers in line.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine cinematography
  • Marjorie Main as Mrs. Adams

Must See?
No; this one isn’t must-see. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Cattle Queen of Montana (1954)

Cattle Queen of Montana (1954)

“I’m here and I’m going to stay here!”

Synopsis:
After her father (Morris Ankrum) is killed during a Blackfoot raid and their property deed is stolen by a dastardly rival (Gene Evans), an injured cattle rancher (Barbara Stanwyck) remains determined to secure their rightful land in Montana, despite warnings from a hired gunman (Ronald Reagan).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Barbara Stanwyck Films
  • Native Americans
  • Ronald Reagen Films
  • Strong Females
  • Westerns

Review:
It’s unclear exactly why Peary lists this Allan Dwan-directed oater in his GFTFF, other than the co-starring of Stanwyck — who is fine (of course) in the title role as a tough gal who won’t be bullied into submission — and then-president Reagan.

A subplot about the rivalry between a rebel named Natchakoa (Anthony Caruso) and a college-educated Blackfoot named Colorados (Lance Fuller):

as well as the jealousy felt by a woman (Yvette Duguay) who has her heart set on Colorados, and believes Stanwyck is in her way:

takes up some time, but basically this is a standard shoot-em-up flick between ranchers-and-Indians, with some pretty hoary dialogue (“When that girl gets an idea, she’s just as stubborn as a mule with a broken hind leg.”). The amount of anti-Indian rhetoric is notable for its blatant racism, and serves as a potent reminder of where we’ve come from:

“A white woman with an Indian? I can’t believe it!”
“There’s only one reason why a white woman takes up with an Indian — and it’s got a mighty nasty name.”
“My nose can’t stand being anywhere near an Indian lover.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • John Alton’s cinematography

Must See?
No; you can skip this one unless you’re a Stanwyck fan.

Links:

Head (1968)

Head (1968)

“Everybody’s where they wanna be.”

Synopsis:
The Monkees (Peter Tork, Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, and Davy Jones) take a head trip through reality and beyond — including to Victor Mature’s hair.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Bob Rafelson Films
  • Musicians
  • Surrealism
  • Victor Mature Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary points out that the “one film” of The Monkees — “a Beatles-influenced singing group [that] was formed to star in a television series and make records” — was “aimed not at the groups’ loyal teenybopper fans, but at a more sophisticated audience”. Directed by Bob Rafelson and co-scripted by Rafelson and Jack Nicholson (as well as The Monkees themselves, uncredited), the film “contains political references (including documentary footage of the Vietnam war); satirizes the world of movies, television, and commercials; and spoofs the group’s wholesome image.” Peary notes that “each Monkee becomes a mere pawn being jerked from one incoherent sequence to the next, and is subordinate to the gimmicky (psychedelic) visuals and special effects” — but “there are funny moments,” including the Monkees becoming “dandruff on Victor Mature’s greasy hair” (!).

However, he argues that “the film is a mess (by design — that’s the shame) and tedious,” and thus only “recommended for Monkees fans who comprise [the] film’s cult today”; “others will be disappointed.

I’m in agreement with Peary’s review, which accurately captures both the chaos and the frustration of this intentionally “cult-like”, self-referential satire. Rafelson himself has admitted that the entire screenplay was written while tripping on acid — and there’s deliberately very little coherence across scenes. At one point, we’re told that what we’re seeing from then on is a policeman’s dream, but since the dream portion never “ends”, we’re left wondering whether this was simply one more “joke” meant to trip us up (literally). With that said, film fanatics may have fun trying to recognize the various classic movie clips scattered throughout — which include The Black Cat (1934), Golden Boy (1939), City for Conquest (1940), and Gilda (1946).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Plenty of creatively surreal imagery


Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look for its cult status.

Links:

Clash By Night (1951)

Clash By Night (1951)

“I want a man to give me confidence. Somebody to fight off the blizzards and floods! Somebody to beat off the world when it tries to swallow you up!”

Synopsis:
When a restless woman (Barbara Stanwyck) returns home to live near her brother (Keith Andes) and his girlfriend (Marilyn Monroe), she is wooed by a loyal fisherman (Paul Douglas) who convinces her to settle down with him — but can she resist the lure of Douglas’s handsome friend (Robert Ryan)?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Barbara Stanwyck Films
  • Fishermen
  • Fritz Lang Films
  • Infidelity
  • Love Triangle
  • Marilyn Monroe Films
  • Marital Problems
  • Paul Douglas Films
  • Play Adaptation
  • Robert Ryan Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that Fritz Lang’s adaptation of Clifford Odets’s play seems like an “odd choice” for the director “because there is no place in this deliberately paced drama where he can use his visual flare”: while he “does move his camera more than usual in an unsuccessful attempt to keep this talkfest from seeming stagy,” “dramatic lighting, sharp editing, and varied camera angles would have been out of place.” Peary points out that “in the absence of action, the film has lonely, lost, broken people philosophizing about life, love, trust, and responsibility” — and “what excitement there is comes from the characters, who are presented as life’s forces, exhibiting raw passions, gut emotions.” He notes that “while the love-triangle plot in which the unsuspecting husband is odd-man-out has been around since the Edward G. Robinson and Edward Arnold films of the thirties and forties film noir, this was the rare instance in which the woman is the film’s central character.” He argues that while the “picture needs sparks — and more of Monroe”, the “acting is good, and the last scene is extremely satisfying.”

Peary’s review just about sums up my own take on this film: while Nicholas Musuraca’s cinematography is nicely atmospheric, and the performances are all fine (Douglas is especially effective), it’s rough spending nearly two hours watching Stanwyck sowing seeds of destruction all around her, and then seeing the inevitable chaos that results. Meanwhile, there are too many cut-aways to scenes of waves crashing violently on shore, and an odd emphasis in Odets’s dialogue on violence towards women (“Didn’t you ever wanna cut up a beautiful dame?”). Is this drama meant to show that misogyny is somehow justified, given that perennially dissatisfied women will always test men’s faith and tolerance? As Douglas’s Uncle Vince (J. Carroll Naish) boldly states: “I never married. You know why? We spoil women in this country. Too much education, too much free speech”; later he adds, “Always said, women and horses: use the whip on them.” Or take this exchange between Andes and Monroe, early in the film:

Peggy (Monroe): Irene came into work with a black eye. That fella she married in San Jose when she was working the fruit cannery came down last night. Wanted her to go back up state and live with him again. And when she wouldn’t, he just beat her up awful. You should see her eye!

Joe Doyle (Andes): Well, he’s her husband.

Peggy (Monroe): So what? I suppose you’d beat me up too if I was your wife.

Joe Doyle (Andes): Sure! Regular.

Viewers should be forewarned that this film will evoke complex emotions, though it’s worth a one-time look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances by the leads

  • Nicholas Musuraca’s cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s worth checking out.

Links:

How the West Was Won (1962)

How the West Was Won (1962)

“The westward course was no smoother than that of true love.”

Synopsis:
Shortly after escaping robbery and death by a river pirate (Walter Brennan) and his clan, a homesteading couple (Karl Malden and Agnes Moorehead) drown in a tragic accident, and their daughters Eve (Carroll Baker) and Lilith (Debbie Reynolds) take different life paths in life: Eve marries and settles down with a mountain man (James Stewart), while Lilith becomes a riverboat singer courted by both an earnest businessman (Robert Preston) and a charming gambler (Gregory Peck). During the Civil War, Eve’s grown son Zeb (George Peppard) and a fellow soldier (Russ Tamblyn) accidentally cross paths with Generals Sherman (John Wayne) and Lee (Henry Morgan). Upon arriving back home, Zeb and a buffalo hunter (Henry Fonda) try to help broker peace with local Native American tribes while a greedy capitalist (Richard Widmark) will stop at nothing to get cross-country railroads built. Finally, while hoping to peacefully settle down with his wife (Carolyn Jones) and kids on land purchased by his widowed Aunt Lilith (Reynolds), Peppard ends up helping a sheriff (Lee J. Cobb) ambush an old enemy (Eli Wallach) plotting a train robbery.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Agnes Moorehead Films
  • Carolyn Jones Films
  • Carroll Baker Films
  • David Brian Films
  • Debbie Reynolds Films
  • Eli Wallach Films
  • Ensemble Cast
  • George Marshall Films
  • George Peppard Films
  • Gregory Peck Films
  • Henry Fonda Films
  • Henry Hathaway Films
  • Jimmy Stewart Films
  • John Ford Films
  • John Wayne Films
  • Karl Malden Films
  • Lee J. Cobb Films
  • Richard Widmark Films
  • Robert Preston Films
  • Russ Tamblyn Films
  • Spencer Tracy Films
  • Thelma Ritter Films
  • Walter Brennan Films
  • Westerns

Review:
Divided into five chronologically distinct episodes — The Rivers (1839, d: Henry Hathaway), The Plains (1851, d: Henry Hathaway), The Civil War (1861–1865, d: John Ford), The Railroad (1868, d: George Marshall), and The Outlaws (1889, d: Henry Hathaway) — this sprawling western adventure (narrated by Spencer Tracy) was one of only two narrative films made using the innovative but highly challenging shooting technique of Cinerama (the other was The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm [1962]). Surprisingly, there’s a solid continuity to the five vignettes: we feel a sense of investment emerging for the family we’re introduced to in the first episode, as the characters all either age or die off realistically. Reynolds and Baker are appropriately feisty as the lead females whose adventures and/or children ground the stories, and the vast supporting cast of big-name actors are fun to spot in a variety of roles (not all of which could be easily elucidated in the lengthy synopsis above). Meanwhile, the cinematography is truly impressive — especially knowing the lengths to which directors Hathaway, Ford, and Marshall (and their crew of DPs) had to go simply to achieve any given scene (check out Wikipedia’s article for more information).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Impressive Cinerama cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for its historical significance.

Categories

Links:

Inherit the Wind (1960)

Inherit the Wind (1960)

“This community is an insult to the world!”

Synopsis:
When a teacher (Dick York) in 1925 small-town Tennessee is put on trial for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution rather than Creationism, he’s defended by agnostic Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy), prosecuted by Bible-thumper Matthew Brady (Fredric March), covered in a media spectacle by cynical journalist E.K. Hornbeck (Gene Kelly), and supported by his loving but concerned fiancee (Donna Anderson), whose preacher-father (Claude Akins) is the town’s most vocal opponent of Darwinian theory.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Courtroom Drama
  • Deep South
  • Fredric March Films
  • Gene Kelly Films
  • Lawyers
  • Media Spectacle
  • Play Adaptation
  • Rivalry
  • Small Town America
  • Spencer Tracy Films
  • Stanley Kramer Films

Review:
Director-producer Stanley Kramer helmed this adaptation of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s 1955 Broadway play, based on the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial. Details and names have been changed — see Tim Dirk’s FilmSite review for an extensive analysis — but the essence of the storyline has been retained, while focusing primarily on the drama of two powerful men butting heads on stage (literally so, as shown in this poster). The theme of highly religious citizens defying the incorporation of science and reason into their lives is (sadly) as relevant as ever (it’s odd how pertinent this tale remains nearly 100 years later), as is the notion of the media seizing on a high-emotion battle between two opposing personalities (presidential elections, anyone?). Unfortunately, the fictional inclusion of a conflicted fiancee for York adds unnecessary drama to what was already a powerful enough courtroom tale, and Kelly seems miscast (one expects him to break into song and dance at any moment) — but the film remains worth a one-time look for the noteworthy lead performances and the intrinsic drama of science “versus” faith.

Note: Kramer made a number of “message pictures” right around this time — including The Defiant Ones (1958), On the Beach (1959), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1968) — and this fits right into that category.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Spencer Tracy as Henry Drummond
  • Fredric March as Matthew Brady
  • Fine cinematography and direction

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended for one-time viewing. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

“Four years ago, something terrible happened here. We did nothing about it — nothing!”

Synopsis:
When a one-armed veteran (Spencer Tracy) arrives in the small town of Bad Rock, California in 1945, its inhabitants — including the hotel desk clerk (John Ericson) and his sister (Anne Francis), the sheriff (Dean Jagger), the undertaker (Walter Brennan), and three menacing men — Reno (Robert Ryan), Hector (Lee Marvin), and Coley (Ernest Borgnine) — give him the run-around, refusing to answer his questions about the mysterious disappearance a few years ago of a Japanese-American farmer named Komoko.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Amateur Sleuths
  • Anne Francis Films
  • Ernest Borgnine Films
  • John Sturges Films
  • Lee Marvin Films
  • Race Relations and Racism
  • Robert Ryan Films
  • Spencer Tracy Films
  • Veterans
  • Walter Brennan Films
  • Westerns

Review:
Although Peary doesn’t review this title in his GFTFF, he did write an essay in 1991 for the Criterion Collection, which I’ll be referencing here. In that essay he writes that this “cult favorite” — “adapted from a story by Howard Breslin” — remains a “taut, efficiently-made, modern-day western,” and is often “compared… to High Noon because it feature[s] an individual who takes on several bad guys while the townspeople do nothing.” He notes that highlights include “Millard Kaufman’s bold script about racial hatred and misguided ‘Americanism’,” “Andre Previn’s powerful score,” and “the widescreen Panavision photography of William C. Mellor,” whose “work is most striking in shots of the town of Black Rock set against the flat desert terrain of one of film history’s most classic western locations — the Lone Pine area at the foot of Mount Whitney at the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevadas.”

Peary points out that director John Sturges “was one of the best directors of masculine action films in which the setting had thematic relevance and men confronted terrible odds and/or attempted daring escapes” — including such titles as The Magnificant Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957). He notes that “while Tracy is at the heart of the picture, it’s delightful to watch him interact with his fabulous supporting cast” — including Ryan playing “one of his better neurotic characters”:

Marvin and Borgnine “gleefully playing frightening villains”:


and Walter Brennan “as feisty as ever.”

I’m in agreement with Peary’s positive review of this surprisingly tense, uniquely scripted thriller, and can understand why it was selected in 2018 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. It’s well worth a look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Spencer Tracy as John Macreedy
  • Fine supporting performances by the cast

  • William C. Mellor’s cinematography

  • Millard Kaufman’s screenplay

    Reno Smith (Ryan):“Somebody’s always looking for something in this part of the West. To the historian it’s the Old West, to the book writer it’s the Wild West, to the businessman it’s the Undeveloped West — they say we’re all poor and backward, and I guess we are, we don’t even have enough water. But to us, this place is our West, and I wish they’d leave us alone!”

  • Andre Previn’s score

Must See?
Yes. Listed as a Cult Movie and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)

“You men are here because you volunteered.”

Synopsis:
In retaliation for the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Lt. Colonel James Doolittle (Spencer Tracy) solicits volunteer pilots — including Lt. Dawson (Van Johnson), whose wife (Phyllis Thaxter) is newly pregnant — to engage in an aerial attack on Japan.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Airplanes and Pilots
  • Mervyn LeRoy Films
  • Robert Mitchum Films
  • Robert Walker Films
  • Spencer Tracy Films
  • Van Johnson
  • World War II

Review:
Mervyn LeRoy directed and Dalton Trumbo scripted this adaptation of a journalistic memoir about T.W. Lawson, a pilot during the notorious
Doolittle Raid who lost part of a leg after a crash landing near the island of Nantien. It’s well-crafted patriotic fare, taking time to firmly establish the willingness (and bravery) of all the men who volunteered for this secret mission; the amazing lives (and women) they left behind); and how challenging it was for the men to learn how to engage in bold new aerial tactics with B-25 bombers. According to TCM:

“MGM notified the War Department that they had three goals in making the film: to improve public morale, to dispel rumors that the Army and Navy were not working together effectively during the war and to generate support for China’s part of the war effort by showing how the Chinese Army and peasants helped downed U.S. flyers escape the Japanese. The studio did not, however, mention that the Chinese helping the downed flyers were Communist guerillas.”

Indeed, it’s refreshing to see the sincere effort put into demonstrating Sino-American collaboration: while none emerge as fully-rounded protagonists, the Chinese characters are at least shown to possess humanity and compassion. (As Lawson tells Dr. Yung [Benson Fong]: “You’re our kind of people.”)

With that said, Thaxter’s character is written (and portrayed) in an overly earnest fashion (does the couple ever stop their mutual adoration club?)

and emergent stars Walker and Mitchum aren’t given big enough roles.


This film will primarily be of interest to WWII aerial buffs.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine cinematography and (Oscar-winning) special effects


Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look for historical purposes.

Links:

Tortilla Flat (1942)

Tortilla Flat (1942)

“You’re nothing but a no-good paisano and a jailbird, like all your friends!”

Synopsis:
When Danny (John Garfield) inherits two houses from his deceased grandfather, his lazy but persuasive friend Pilon (Spencer Tracy) convinces him to rent one out to penniless Pilon, who then rents it out to their friend Pablo (Akim Tamaroff). But their loafing, heavy-drinking lifestyle is interrupted when Danny falls for a beautiful factory worker (Hedy Lamarr), and Pilon entices a local dog-owning hobo (Frank Morgan) to move in with them and share secrets about his hoarded money.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Frank Morgan Films
  • Friendship
  • Hedy Lamarr Films
  • Inheritance
  • John Garfield Films
  • John Qualen Films
  • Spencer Tracy Films
  • Victor Fleming Films

Review:
Victor Fleming directed this quaint but culturally demeaning adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel, set along the central coast of California. The book’s sad ending was changed (naturally), leaving instead a comedically “heart-warming” tale of boozy moochers trying their best to maintain a lifestyle of wanton bachelorhood, but ultimately finding themselves lured by the call of domesticity and righteous behavior (and religion). It’s easy to see how this might have been an enjoyable diversion for WWII-era audiences wanting to watch something completely non-war-related, but today it simply comes across as dated and insensitive.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Karl Freund’s cinematography

Must See?
No; you can skip this one.

Links:

Old Man and the Sea, The (1958)

Old Man and the Sea, The (1958)

“Never have I had such a strong fish – or one that acted so strangely.”

Synopsis:
An aging Cuban fisherman (Spencer Tracy) attempts to score the biggest fish of his life on a lengthy trip at sea.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • At Sea
  • Character Studies
  • Fishermen
  • John Sturges Films
  • Spencer Tracy Films

Review:
According to TCM’s article, this adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s 1952 Pulitzer Prize-winning novella — “two years in development and two years in production” — was an expensive challenge to bring to the screen. Indeed, one wonders about the wisdom in attempting to turn a one-character allegory into a cinematic tale — and this skepticism is borne out in the movie, which relies far too heavily on voice-over narration (by Tracy himself), displays inconsistent footage of Tracy’s lengthy battle with a huge marlin (scenes done in a sound stage are pretty obvious), and features a fairly wooden performance from the only other talking character in the film (Felipe Pazos as “The Boy”). With that said, Oscar-nominated Tracy is fine in the central role, and James Wong Howe’s color cinematography is often luminous — so at least it’s a beautiful and (mostly) well-acted venture.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Spencer Tracy as the Old Man
  • Beautiful on-location cinematography

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see for diehard Hemingway or Tracy fans. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Links: