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Joel McCrea

A Neglected Western: ‘Colorado Territory’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

Colorado Territory, a remake of the High Sierra plot, is an early masterpiece of the pessimistic Western. It retains the High Sierra story and works variations on most of that film’s characters. But some significant changes are also made and the result, on the whole, is much more impressive. While High Sierra was set at the end of Dillinger-style gangsterism, Colorado Territory is given a setting that evokes the end of the Wild West. The Bogart figure is now Wes McQueen (Joel McCrea), “just a big Kansas jay,” escaping from jail and getting involved in one last train robbery. The Joan Leslie character becomes Julie Ann Winslow (Dorothy Malone), who is sexier and nastier than Velma was and who thus becomes a key to this version’s darker psychology. Velma’s father moves West for a better life and so does Julie Ann’s, but the latter’s dream paradise turns out to be a desert. The sentimentally symbolic dog of High Sierra is absent here, while the geographical symbolism is developed much more fully. Colorado (Virginia Mayo) is a disillusioned refugee of “the dancehall,” like her High Sierra counterpart (Ida Lupino), but here she is much more than a highly emotional spectator. High Sierra‘s cynical reporter (Jerome Cowan) is understandably missing here, but it’s intriguing to think of Brother Tomas (Frank Puglia), who watches over an all but abandoned mission, as his replacement.

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Videophiled: Preston Sturges’ ‘The Palm Beach Story’

PalmBeachThe Palm Beach Story (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – Leave it to Preston Sturges to create the sexiest and most grown-up romantic comedy of his day. Claudette Colbert has never been more desirable as Gerry Jeffers, the flirtatious pragmatist with a clear-eyed take on the realities of men, women, and sex, and Sturges turns Joel McCrea’s All-American stiffness into comic perfection as her husband, the aspiring inventor Tom, a would-be Horatio Alger with a sense of pride and honor at odds with Colbert’s willingness to leverage her sex appeal. She’s not mercenary exactly, merely more socially sophisticated, and without the usual homemaking skills of the traditional housewife, those are tools she is more than willing to use. They are opposites in everything from attitude to onscreen energy to body language. Colbert moves like a dancer and even her dialogue seems to dance through the film while the stocky, blocky McCrea is slow-moving, deliberately speaking bedrock, a foundation of hard-working focus and unbending values. They shouldn’t work but when his hands work the stubborn zipper on the back of her dress, their temperature rises noticeably.

The Palm Beach Story is a variation on the classic comedy of remarriage, a theme that runs through such films as The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday. Not that this couple divorces, but that’s Gerry’s plan, convinced that he’s better off without her expensive tastes, and she runs off with little more than the clothes on her back and almost literally falls into the lap of an idle rich oddball (a brilliantly underplayed comic turn by Rudy Vallee) and his cheerfully man-hopping sister (a sparkling Mary Astor). Meanwhile, Tom runs after her and gets introduced to Palm Beach society as her brother, Gerry’s plan to leverage the situation to finance his future as well as hers. She’s nothing if not thoughtful.

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Blu-ray: The Original ‘The Most Dangerous Game’

The Most Dangerous Game (1932) is the first screen adaptation of the classic story of the decadent hunter who stalks human prey. Directed by Ernest Schoedsack with actor-turned-director Irving Pichel (his first directing credit) and produced by Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper, previously known for exotic adventure documentaries like Grass (1925) and Chang (1927), it is still the best. They bring gothic style to the strain of primitive exoticism they helped make popular in the late silent / early sound era and frame the dramatic survival thriller with lurid and perverse details extreme even for the pre-code era.

Fay Wray and Joel McCrea fleeing through the ‘King Kong’ set

Joel McCrea stars as Bob Rainsford, a celebrated big game hunter on a voyage through the south seas who is shipwrecked on an isolated jungle island by the reclusive Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), the very model of the decadent aristocrat turned mad megalomaniac. Living in a castle built in the middle of the wilds (a lovely but clearly painted money-saving matte), he entertains himself by luring passing ships to their doom on the rocky straights and then playing the smirking host to the survivors.

Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong, stars of King Kong (which was being shot concurrently), play Eve and Martin Trowbridge, siblings and fellow “guests” of Zaroff. He is all generosity as he drops hints to their fate and Bob is a little slow on the uptake, what with Zaroff’s leading comments about his boredom with hunting mere animals and his quest for a true hunting challenge, and Eve’s desperate warnings of “danger.” Her instincts are right on. It’s not just bloodlust that drives Zaroff; he’s saving Eve for the post hunt festivities. “Kill!… Then love,” he explains to Bob (letting the imagination of the audience fill in the rest), and then invites him to be his partner in the hunt. Bob’s disgust ends the discussion and the American is sent out as his next challenge.

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DVD/Blu-ray: ‘Bird of Paradise’

There was a vogue for South Seas exotica in the late silent and early sound era, films made up of varying degrees of ethnographic revelation, social commentary, and erotic spectacle. Moana (1926), Robert Flaherty’s documentary portrait of life in Samoa, is the first expression of this idealized screen fantasy (every scene was carefully staged for his cameras), and the most spectacular expression comes via King Kong (1933), which exaggerates both the primitive exoticism and the primal fears of savage tribal culture to outrageous extremes. Along the way are films as varied as White Shadows in the South Seas (1928), The Pagan (1929), Tabu (1931), and King Vidor’s Bird of Paradise (1932).

Dolores Del Rio and Joel McCrea

You wouldn’t peg King Vidor, a social realist by nature, as a natural for such a subject, and the director himself dismissed 1932 Bird of Paradise as “a potboiler.” He took the assignment with no script, merely a Hawaii location, a South Seas setting, Dolores Del Rio and Joel McCrea set for the starring roles, and a few directives from producer David O. Selznick, new ensconced as head of production at RKO. “Just give me three wonderful love scenes like you had in The Big Parade and Bardelys the Magnificent. I don’t care what story you use so long as we call it Bird of Paradise and Del Rio jumps into a flaming volcano at the finish,” is how Vidor (writing in his autobiography A Tree is a Tree) recalled Selznick’s request. And that’s what, after weeks of waiting out tropical storms to shoot location footage in Hawaii and completing the production with Catalina doubling Hawaii, he finally delivered. So many of these films revolve around forbidden love, often (though not always) about white male adventurers intoxicated by the primal innocence in a land of plenty and a culture of easy living. And so goes Bird of Paradise, with McCrea as Johnny, the all-American sailor who (with the blessing of his paternal captain) jumps ship to spend time on a tropical island and the chief’s beautiful young daughter Luana (Del Rio), who is betrothed to the prince of another island. But of course.

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Barbara Stanwyck at Universal and Criterion’s Southern Revivals – DVDs of the Week

The Barbara Stanwyck Collection (Universal Backlot Series) (Universal)

Barbara Stanwyck, that powerhouse actress of the sound era of Hollywood cinema, is gifted with a style and sensibility that has arguably aged more convincingly and compellingly into the 21st century than her contemporaries. While you can’t really say her performance elevates every one of her films into classic status, her presence lifts average material, drives good movies and stokes the fire of great films. She played most roles as if she fought her way up from the street to become who she is and wasn’t about to back down from any challenge to her position. “There is a not a more credible portrait in the cinema of a worldly, attractive, and independent woman in a man’s worlds than Stanwyck’s career revealed,” wrote David Thomson in his Biographical Dictionary of Film.

Barbara Stanwyck on the streets
Barbara Stanwyck on the mean streets of depression-era cinema

There’s little in common between these six films in this set of Universal films apart from Stanwyck, a tough cookie of a movie star who consistently dominated her male co-stars when it came to sheer screen presence, and the fact that they are apparently that last Stanwyck films in Universal’s catalogue that had not been released to DVD. That’s enough, I suppose, especially for a set that opens with such a revelation as Internes Can’t Take Money (1937), a snappy little depression-era crime drama based on a Max Brand story that also happens to be the film that introduced the character of Dr. Kildaire to the screen. He’s incarnated by Joel McCrea here as a passionate and dedicated young surgical intern who works in a New York hospital that is the epitome of Art Deco modernism, with elegantly spacious rooms, curving hallways, walls of glass and spotless white dividers and ceilings. (If Fred and Ginger ever made a hospital film, they could have danced their way through this set and convinced us all it was really a ballroom.) Into this gleaming utopia comes working class Stanwyck and immediately takes charge of the story. She’s a hard-luck girl with a complicated backstory, spending her meager salary to track down her daughter, a little girl lost in a system of orphans and foster kids without a bureaucracy. So she turns to the underworld of hustlers and tipsters for a lead and, wouldn’t you know, young Dr. Kildaire fits right into this world, knocking back beers as at a gangster bar and (because he favors the Hippocratic oath over hospital regulations) befriend a gambling racket boss (Lloyd Nolan) who turns out to be a right joe.

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