Monday, July 14, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The Westerner" (1940)

Tonally, "The Westerner" is one of the weirdest films I've ever encountered.

Ostensibly it's about Judge Roy Bean, the famous/infamous Texas Justice of the Peace who essentially operated a combination saloon/courtroom as his own personal fiefdom. He generally dispensed the same punishment to every offender: hanging, and a fine that always equaled whatever currency the man had in his pockets at the time. Bean kept the money for himself as court fees, with enough parceled out to the silent undertaker character who seems to populate every Western.

(I should note the real Bean only ever sentenced two men to hanging, and one of them escaped.)

But Gary Cooper was the star of the movie, so the story was shifted so that Bean was the supporting character and Cooper's character, Cole Harden, became the intrepid cowboy who runs afoul of Bean's frontier justice, but later becomes his friend. Walter Brennan, the great character actor, won his third Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for the role, the only person to have done so three times.

As a result, the part that normally would've been the straight-up villain role ends up being a cantankerous, wrong-headed but amiable goof who's more pitiable than hateful. Unlike Brennan's straight-up villain in "My Darling Clementine," there's no suggestion of darkness in his heart -- simply an unbending view that "sodbusters" are the sworn enemy of the cattlemen who settled the town of Vinegaroon.

Bean is a bundle of eccentricities. Other than being a hanging judge, his entire life seems to be wrapped up in the image of English actress Lily Langtry. Her picture is plastered all over the saloon, and when a citified customer discloses that he was once in England but declined to attend one of Langtry's performances, he is summarily thrown out.

Harden is smart enough to leverage the judge's ardor to get him off the hook for alleged horse thieving. He claims to have met Langtry, and even have a lock of her hair back with his things in El Paso. Bean essentially agrees to suspend his sentence if Harden will give over the hair. When the real horse thief turns up, Bean is pleased with how Harden acquits himself, and they form a tenuous friendship based on their mutual ornery-yet-cagey dispositions.

So, even though this is the story of a quasi-jurist who essentially used his authority to murder people who disagreed with him, most of the movie actually has a light, fun-and-games tone to it. The comedic aspect is pumped up by Cooper's performance, which is another iteration of his aw-shucks star persona. His sidewise reactions and double-takes cue us in to how loony Judge Bean is.

The last half-hour or so, though, takes a nose-dive into tragedy. Harden has also befriended some of the homesteaders, including old patriarch Caliphet Matthews (Fred Stone) and his hard-headed daughter, Jane Ellen (Doris Davenport), who is the only one of the farmers brave enough to stand up to Bean.

Harden tries to play the role of the peacemaker, convincing Bean to let the homesteaders farm in peace, while also warning him of a group of farmers who come to town to give Bean a taste of his own medicine and lynch him.

It's not the first time somebody's had that idea -- a running joke is that Bean survived an attempted hanging himself, which left him with a stiff neck that Harden continually has to pop back into place with his hands or, on one occasion, a punch to the face. Almost everything the movie depicts about Bean is Hollywood flimflam, though this bit is actually true.

Anyway, Bean breaks the peace by having his men burn down the Matthews' farm, killing Caliphet in the process. Harden goes to the county sheriff to get a warrant sworn out, and is deputized to bring Bean in. That's impossible while he's surrounded by his henchmen in his own town, which he renames Langtry after finally securing the purported lock of hair (Harden actually snips it from Jane Ellen).

But when Bean hears Lily Langtry is coming to the territory to perform, he has one of his men buy out the entire theater, and burns all of the tickets but one, so he can watch her without distraction. Harden's waiting onstage when the curtain comes up, though.

In a rarity for Westerns of this era, they don't have a quick-draw duel, but simply shoot it out while hiding behind chairs and columns. Fatally wounded, Bean is helped by Harden to Langtry's dressing room to finally meet his idol before falling over dead.

Bean's death doesn't carry any emotional impact, since he's indisputably the heavy of the piece, even if a charismatic one.

According to Cooper biographer Jeffrey Meyers, the screen icon was worried about being upstaged by Brennan, and only made the film  under protest after Samuel Goldwyn enforced his contract. The pairing was so productive, however, that they went on to make four more films together, including "Meet John Doe," "Sergeant York" and "The Pride of the Yankees."

I was struck how physically formidable Brennan appeared next to the 6-foot-3 Cooper. Brennan often played characters much older than himself, and often seemed small and scraggly, and sometimes even wizened. Here he's lean but rangy.

Directed by William Wyler, "The Westerner" has some terrific production values, including the burning of the homesteaders' fields and houses, which even includes the imposition of some special effects flames onto the screen. I also liked that both Cooper and Brennan rode their own horses, including during a galloping chase through the desert.

In addition to Brennan's Academy Award win, the film was also nominated for black-and-white art direction and original story, back when they still had that category. It's odd, since the two credited screenwriters, Jo Swerling and Niven Busch, did not receive Oscar nods but Stuart N. Lake, who came up with the story idea, was.

Judge Roy Bean is an iconic figure made more so by film and television adaptations of his life, including a TV series in the 1950s. There was also a 1972 feature film starring Paul Newman, and this time they cast the movie star in the Bean role, instead of finding some bullpucky cowboy part for  him to play off of.

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