On the Death of Harry Carey, Jr.

careyjrcardDuring the last phase of his career, Harry Carey, Jr., appeared in small but significant parts in some of the few westerns produced in Hollywood during the 1980s. In Walter Hill’s The Long Riders, he played a stagecoach passenger named George Arthur, who is robbed by members of the James-Younger Gang. When George reveals that he had fought for the South during the Civil War, Bob Younger shakes his hand. The unreconstructed rebel bonds with the outlaws as he helps them rob a cowardly passenger who lies about fighting for the Stars and Bars. As the gang rides away with guns blazing, George walks toward the camera, murmuring in amazement, “I’ll be god damned and go to hell”—a proper testimonial after an encounter with legends. The stage hold-up is one of my favorite scenes in the film because it is Harry Carey, Jr., who delivers this line. As a member of John Ford’s stock company, Carey had walked among a few western legends himself, albeit cinematic ones.

Carey died last week at the age of 91, and most obituaries identified him with Ford, John Wayne, Ward Bond, Ben Johnson, and the other actors associated with Ford’s troupe. Carey was proud of his close association with Ford and his westerns even when he didn’t fully agree with the great director’s attitude toward his actors. In his autobiography Company of Heroes: My Life As an Actor in the John Ford Stock Company, he declared, “. . . I’ve only had one teacher. That man was John Ford. He was my nemesis and my hero. There were times when I was not an admirer—but when the day’s work was done—I loved him.”

careygodfathers2

HARRY CAREY, JR., c. 1948

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Ralph Nelson’s DUEL AT DIABLO (1966)

As soon as the credits start to roll in Ralph Nelson’s DUEL AT DIABLO (1966) you know you’re in for something very different. A knife suddenly appears to cut through the screen and immediately starts slashing apart the United Artists logo. This stunning gesture told audiences at the time that they were about to watch a very violent film but also a film that was going to defy expectations. DUEL AT DIABLO does that but it’s also one of the most entertaining American westerns produced in the ‘60s and a great example of why I appreciate that groundbreaking decade so much. Prejudices were being set aside and old Hollywood was forced to change with the times. DUEL AT DIABLO was made during the height of this transition and although it might not be considered a major film that contributed to the birth of “New Hollywood” it is an important milestone in the western genre thanks to the pioneering performance of its star, Sidney Poitier.

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Toshiro Mifune, Japan’s John Wayne

During Toshiro Mifune’s impressive career in front of the camera he was often referred to as the “John Wayne of Japan.” Like Wayne, Mifune was a powerful and commanding screen presence and one of his country’s biggest box-office stars. His rugged good looks and macho posturing seemed to represent a distinct kind of masculine ideal that post WW2 film audiences found particularly attractive. Both Wayne and Mifune often played characters that were tough, strong-willed, courageous, self-sacrificing and more than willing to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. They also shared a sense of humor and natural confidence that allowed them to occasionally take on challenging roles that threatened to tarnish their universal appeal.
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Life With Father

“You think I am brave because I carry a gun; well, your fathers are much braver because they carry responsibility, for you, your brothers, your sisters, and your mothers. And this responsibility is like a big rock that weighs a ton. It bends and it twists them until it finally buries them under the ground. And there’s nobody who says they have to do this. They do it because they love you, and because they want to.”
- Bernardo O’Reilly (Charles Bronson) in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960)

I recently became an aunt again so I’ve been thinking a lot about family lately and with Father’s Day right around the corner I thought I’d share some thoughts about my own dad and how the movies we watched together helped make me the person I am today.

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Shakespeare at the OK Corral

I know from comments posted to some of my earlier posts that not all of you in Morlock-land are fans of Spaghetti Westerns.  Fair enough.  They were designed as a European alternative to American Westerns–and like European football or European pizza, they defy American tastes to some extent.  I’ve argued here before that Europeans have as legitimate a claim to Westerns as Americans do–I mean, one of the very first horse operas was literally an opera!  Giacomo Puccini first saw his Western opera La fanciulla del West (“The Girl of the Golden West”) performed in 1910.

Nevertheless, I don’t dispute that these European Westerns differ substantially in tenor and texture from the homegrown kind.  That’s why Americans first started using that “Spaghetti Western” epithet–it was intended as an insult.  Even though the insult has now been embraced by fans and lost its sting, there are still those who would argue that like real spaghetti, Italian Westerns are just empty calories.

This may be true of some–but the vast majority of Italian Westerns weren’t even distributed in the US and many have never been covered significantly by the critical press, and the irony is that some of the best Spaghettis remain the most obscure.  I’d like this week to introduce you to two films that have never been made available in the US, but which you will nevertheless find more than a little familiar.  We’ve already talked about the influence of pulp novelist Karl May on the Western genre–now it’s time to look at another, even bigger, author–William Shakespeare!Death [...MORE]

Untrue West

One thing I love about blogging here is the sense of a real conversation developing with readers.  Several weeks ago, I wrote about Laurel and Hardy’s first talkie, UNACCUSTOMED AS WE ARE, and the comments to that post inspired me to explore the larger story of the transition from silent to sound—and that post’s comments were so wide-ranging and inspiring I have my work cut out for me to just keep up.  I’m not surprised that readers challenged my off-hand references to Buster Keaton’s talkies—and next week I’ll pick that thread back up—but I was surprised (read: thrilled) that the comments then spurted off in an unexpected tangent about Westerns.

Duke Roberts specifically asked: “Could you research why exactly the western died the way it did? The one western a year, or every other year, does not satisfy.”

Why have Westerns spiffled out as a genre?  Well, I don’t want to just toss out half-baked ideas, so let me work through these things over the course of several posts.

I’d like to start off by taking a look at one particular issue: how Westerns portray Native Americans.  The Cowboys ‘n’ Injuns storylines of a lot of older Westerns weren’t meant to have the kind of deep cultural complexity that they now do—and that means that modern Westerns either have to mostly ignore the native peoples, or directly address the complicated politics involved.

If scientists were to announce tomorrow that astronomers suddenly discovered that, y’know, outer space really doesn’t exist, and in fact all those things we call stars are just sparkly lights in a solid firmament located immediately in the sky, just like the ancients believed… well, that would have ramifications for people making SF movies, and we might be sitting here talking about why nobody makes films like STAR WARS anymore.

So, what I’d like to do is take you through a mirror world of Westerns from a parallel universe that has a wholly different take on the relationship between white settlers and natives—and may help shine a light on how universal the Western genre actually is.

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Some Favorite DVD Releases of 2010

Every year I try to compile a list of my favorite new DVD releases. These lists tend to focus on films from the ’60s and ’70s since they’re my favorite film eras. This year I decided to expand my view a little and disregard limitations so I could share a varied list of all my favorite DVD releases with Movie Morlock readers. This list is far from complete since I haven’t had the opportunity to see every new DVD that was released but I hope it will encourage a few people to seek out these films. Many of the movies on my list were released on DVD for the first time last year so they’ve been hard to see unless you own them on video or caught them playing on television. So without further ado, here’s some of my favorite DVD releases from 2010 listed alphabetically for easy reference.

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Is there no room for heroes?

John Wayne

Just look at this man.  Has there ever been a movie star more iconic?  But what does that icon stand for?  Depends on your age, to some extent.

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Little Big Man’s Big Impact

Few film genres have captured the imagination of movie audiences with the same kind of power and persuasiveness as the American western. For decades Hollywood mixed facts with fiction and created a kind of celluloid mythology that made heroes out of cowboys, would-be settlers and the U.S. Cavalry. Unfortunately this myth-making led to the vilifying of Native Americans who experienced incomprehensible suffering and losses that went undocumented in our history books and were unseen in our movies. Occasionally Hollywood would offer up subtle suggestions of the injustices and racism that Native Americans experienced but the limited scope of these films often marred our general understanding of the people who once populated this beautiful country. In 1970 that all changed.

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Ride, Vaquero! (1953): We both know how this will end

This is an MGM Movie?
In the rousing opening scene of Ride, Vaquero! (1953), a half-drunken bandido leader called José Esqueda (Anthony Quinn), announces to his ragtag, brawling followers that the Civil War has ended. The Americans, he explains, will turn their violent attentions to the Indians and gangs like theirs, moving into their territory along the Rio Grande border. To counter this threat, José Esqueda (Quinn), self-described as “the strongest and most cunning of them all,”  promises that they will now burn all the newcomers’ ranchos as soon as they build them.This bit of desperado theater may seem to be performed for the animalistic men and women who populate the squalid lair of Esqueda, but it is soon clear that his real capering is reserved for an audience of one–his intense, soft-spoken right hand man Rio (Robert Taylor), who privately questions the logic of this promised action while he carefully cleans his gun. Their relationship is a study in contrasts. Esqueda is the personification of every human appetite on two legs, filthy, effusively violent, shooting a man who dares to drink from his bottle. He’s also illogically generous, sending Rio to town to give a priest some of his booty for orphans. Esqueda even indulges in a bit of wood carving sculpture in his off-hours. However, when faced with Rio, Esqueda is confronting his beloved opposite, a man he calls brother, though they are not related in a traditional sense. Rio, encased in a black moodiness as dark as his clothing, has a self-possessed, lethally quiet manner and an unsettling detachment from life that frustrates Esqueda. Alternately threatening Rio and cajoling him, the garrulous Esqueda thinks that the other man relies on his fondness for him to keep him from killing him.

Giving his companion a cold, knowing glare after he is threatened, Rio asks “Why do you talk to me this way? You wouldn’t kill anything…unless it was alive.”

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