“SHANE” (1953) Review

“SHANE” (1953) Review

The history behind the production for the 1953 classic Western, “SHANE” is a curious one. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Westerns ever made in Hollywood. And director George Stevens’ first choices for the film’s two male leads never panned out. Yet, despite the expenses and Stevens’ initial bad luck with his casting choices, “SHANE” became one of the most famous Westerns ever made in Hollywood. 

“SHANE” was based upon Jack Schaefer’s 1949 novel of the same title. Many film historians and critics believe the narrative’s basic elements were based upon a historical event, the 1892 Johnson County War. Although this was never acknowledged by Stevens, Schaefer or the film’s screenwriter, A.B. Guthrie Jr. And yet . . . the film’s setting turned out to be the same one for the famous cattlemen-homesteaders conflict, Wyoming. The plot for “SHANE” proved to be simple. An experienced gunfighter named Shane, weary of his violent past, arrives at a county in Wyoming Territory and befriends a homesteader/rancher named Joe Starrett and the latter’s family. Despite Starrett’s revelation of a conflict between homesteaders like himself and a ruthless and powerful rancher named Rufus Ryker, Shane accepts a job as Starrett’s ranch hand. Before long, Shane not only finds himself emotionally drawn to the Starretts, but also pulled into the range war that is raging.

Anyone with any knowledge about old Hollywood or American Western films will automatically tell you that “SHANE” is highly regarded and much-beloved movie. The American Film Institute (AFI) has list it as one of the top three (3) Hollywood Westerns ever made and it is ranked 45 on the list of top 100 films. The movie earned six Academy Award nominations and won an award for Best Cinematography (in color). Many people believe Alan Ladd should have received an Academy Award for his performance as the mysterious “former” gunslinger Shane and consider the role as his best performance. How do I feel?

I cannot deny that “SHANE” is a first-rate movie. Who am I kidding? It is an excellent look at violence on the American frontier. And thanks to George Stevens’ direction, it is also brutal. Unlike many previous movie directors, Stevens did not stylized the violent deaths depicted in the film. A major example of this peek into life on the frontier is a scene that featured the brutal death of Frank “Stonewall” Torrey, a small rancher portrayed by Elisha Cook Jr., who was killed by Jack Wilson, a villainous gunslinger portrayed by Jack Palance:

 

Contrary to what one might originally believe, I do not believe “SHANE” preached against violence. Yes, the screenplay written by Guthrie questioned the constant use of violence to solve problems. But the movie made it clear that sometimes, one has no choice but to fight. Does this rule apply to the situation in “SHANE”? Hmmmm . . . good question.

Another aspect of “SHANE” that I found fascinating was Shane’s attempts to put his violent past behind him in his interactions with the Starrett family. Whether Shane was working or riding beside Joe, befriending Joey and struggling to suppress his obvious sexual desire for Marian; it seemed pretty obvious that he had developed close feelings for the entire family. And it would also explained why he would hang around, despite the danger of being dragged into a range war.

I cannot deny that “SHANE” featured some first-rate performances. I also cannot deny that Alan Ladd was in top form as the soft-spoken gunslinger who tried to hang up his gun belt, while staying with Starretts. I have always believed that Ladd was an underrated actor. Many critics have regarded his role as Shane as a singular example of how excellent he was as an actor. Do not get me wrong. I also admire his performance as Shane. It was a prime example of his skills as a movie actor. But I have seen other Ladd performances that I found equally impressive. Van Heflin’s portrayal of the determined small rancher, Joe Starrett, struck me as equally impressive. I could never really regard his character as complex, but Heflin made it easy for me to see why Shane had no problems befriending Joe . . . or why other ranchers regarded him as their unofficial leader. Jean Arthur had been lured out of an early retirement by Stevens for the role of Marian Starrett. I thought she did a superb job of conveying her character’s complicated feelings for Shane. Thanks to Arthur’s performance, Marian seemed to be torn between her love for Joe, her attraction to Shane and her revulsion toward his violent past.

Brandon deWilde had received an Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his role as the Starretts’ young son, Joe Jr. (Joey). Do not get me wrong. I thought deWilde gave a very good performance as the impressionable, yet energetic young Joey. But an Oscar nod? Honestly, I have seen better performances from a good number of child actors – then and now. Another Best Supporting Actor nomination was given to Jack Palance for his role as the villainous gunslinger, Jack Wilson. When I re-watched this movie for the last time, there seemed to be two faces to Palance’s performance. Most of his appearances featured the actor projecting the stone-faced villainy of his character. But there were moments when Palance managed to convey the more human side of Wilson – whether it was his boredom toward his employer’s other minions or weariness at the idea of facing another person to kill. It is strange that I had never noticed this before.

I also have to give kudos to Elisha Cook Jr. as the doomed Frank Toomey, who spent most of the movie aggressively expressing his anger at Ryker’s attempts to drive him and other small ranchers out of the valley. And yet . . . Cook’s best scene featured Toomey’s last moments, when he began to silently express regret at his quick temper and his realization that he was about to meet his death.“SHANE” also featured some first-rate performances from Emilie Meyer as the ruthless and greedy Rufus Ryker; Ben Johnson as one of Ryker’s ranch hands, whose early encounter with Shane made him see the light; and the likes of Ellen Corby, Edgar Buchanan, Douglas Spencer and Edith Evanson.

Despite my admiration for “SHANE”, George Stevens’ direction and A.B. Guthrie Jr.’s screenplay . . . the movie is not a particularly favorite of mine. I like the film, but I do not love it. There are certain aspects of “SHANE” that prevents me from fully embracing it. One is Loyal Griggs’ cinematography. I realize that he had won an Academy Award for his work. And I must say that he did an excellent job in capturing the beauty of the movie’s Wyoming and California locations. But I found his use of natural lighting for the interior shots very frustrating, especially since I could barely see a damn thing in some shots. Another aspect of “SHANE” that annoyed me was its message regarding violence. I have no problem with any story declaring the use of violence in certain situations. My problem is that I did not find the local ranchers’ situation with Ryker dire enough that they had to insist upon fighting it out. Granted, if they had agreed to sell their land to Ryker and leave, it would have meant his victory. I do not know. Perhaps I did not care. Or perhaps this feeling came from my contempt toward the Frank Toomey character, who had stupidly decided to give in to his anger and aggression by facing Ryker and Wilson.

Another aspect of “SHANE” that annoyed me was the Joey Starrett character. I have seen my share of on-screen precocious children in movies and television. But there was something about Joey Starrett that truly got under my skin. I do not blame Brandon deWilde. He was only following Stevens’ direction. But before the movie’s last reel, I found myself wishing that someone would push dear Joey into the mud . . . face first. If there was one aspect of “SHANE” that truly annoyed me, it was bringing the U.S. Civil War into the narrative. I can only recall three characters who were established as Civil War veterans – Shane, Frank Toomey and Jack Wilson. Of the three, guess which one fought with the Union? That is correct. The evil and slimy Wilson. And to make matters worse, Guthrie’s screenplay had Shane utter these words to Wilson before shooting him – “I’ve heard that you’re a low-down Yankee liar.” In other words, “SHANE” became another example of Hollywood’s subtle, yet never-ending reverence for the Confederate cause. And considering that only three characters in this film were established as war veterans, why on earth did Schaefer, Guthrie or Stevens had to drag the damn war into this story in the first place? It was so unnecessary.

Regardless of my frustrations, I must admit that “SHANE” is a first-rate Western. Director George Stevens, screenwriter A.B. Guthrie Jr. and the excellent cast led by Alan Ladd did an exceptional job in creating a Western that many would remember for decades. If only I had enjoyed it more than I actually did.

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“GIANT” (1956) Review

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“GIANT” (1956) Review

I have always been partial to family sagas. This has been the case since I was in my mid teens. Whether the story manifested in a novel, a television series or miniseries, or even a movie; I would eagerly delve into that particular story if I found it interesting. 

One of those family sagas that caught my interest at a young age was “GIANT”, the 1956 adaptation of Edna Ferber’s 1952 novel about a wealthy Texas family. However, “GIANT” used to be something of an enigma to me. I found it difficult to appreciate the movie’s last hour, which was set in the 1940s and 50s. And I also found myself confused over which leading man to cheer for – Rock Hudson’s Jordan “Bick” Benedict Jr. or James Dean’s Jett Rink. Both characters were portrayed ambiguously. And being a simple-minded teenager, I found this a little difficult to accept. I needed clear cut heroes and villains to understand this story. Because of the ambiguous portrayals of the leading male characters and the story’s shift into the post-World War II era, I avoided “GIANT” for years. But recently, curiosity and maturity drove me to watch the movie again.

Produced and directed by George Stevens, “GIANT” began with the wealthy Bick traveling to Maryland to purchase a horse from a local landowner. During his trip, Bick meets and woos the landowner’s older daughter, Leslie Lynnton. They marry and head back to Bick’s large ranch Reata in Texas, where Leslie is forced to adapt to the semi-arid climate and rough culture of the state’s western region. More importantly, both Leslie and Bick are forced to realize that beneath their sexual chemistry and love for each other, they are two people with different social ideals and cultural backgrounds who barely know one another. And they would have to learn to overcome their differences to become a long-lasting couple. One last obstacle to their union turned out to be Jett Rink, a ranch hand who works for Bick’s older sister, Luz. The ambitious Jett not only hopes to get rich, but also falls secretly in love with Leslie. His feelings for the Maryland woman produces an unspoken rivalry between Jett and Bink – a rivalry that spills into business, when Jett strikes oil on the land given to him by Luz Benedict.

After my latest viewing of “GIANT”, my opinion of the movie had changed. I was finally mature enough to understand the ambiguity of the two leading male characters. I also learned to appreciate the movie’s post-World War II period, thanks to the performances of the leads – Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean. But not only did I enjoy how “GIANT”gave a bird’s eye, though somewhat exaggerated view of Texas, I admired how director George Stevens and screenwriters Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat explored the cultural tensions that manifested throughout the state during the early 20th century – especially tensions between the state’s Anglos and those of Mexican descent. “GIANT” also focused on class tensions through the antagonistic relationship between Bick and Rink. This was especially apparent in the movie’s exploration of Texas’ gradual shift from cattle ranching to oil production as its leading industry. And Leslie became a voice for gender equality when she expressed her displeasure at society’s patriarchal order to her husband and his male circle of friends. These tensions served as either character developments or stagnation for our main characters. “GIANT” also explored the gradual change of the state’s leading industry from ranching to oil production

Some of my favorite moments in “GIANT” featured these developments and barriers for the main characters. Jett Rink’s discovery of oil on his land and his confrontation with Bick Benedict proved to be one of those memorable moments and should have served as a development in his character. Aware of the contempt Bick has conveyed toward him, it was easy to wallow in his triumph when he finally confronted the rancher. But Jett’s open leer of Leslie Benedict undermined his moment of triumph and proved to be a sign that newly founded wealth would not improve his character. Leslie’s travails as a bride in Texas was never more apparent than in the barbecue sequence that ended for her in a dead faint. But one of my favorite Leslie moments proved to be the famous scene in which she challenged the status quo of women keeping silent during social gatherings at Reata. The tension between the characters in the scene – especially Leslie and Bick – was deliciously obvious. The first half of “GIANT” did an excellent job of conveying Bick’s arrogance and self-worth as a member of the Benedict family, especially in his scenes with Bick. But my favorite Bick moments proved to be the Christmas Eve 1941 sequence in which audiences become fully aware that he is aging and not as self-confident as he used to be; and the famous roadside diner scene in which he gets into a fistfight with the diner’s bigoted owner and lose.

George Stevens had been wise to film most of the film in Marfa, Texas. Located in the high desert of West Texas, Marfa provided the perfect look for the movie’s setting. Cinematographer William C. Mellor, who had worked with Stevens on a few other films, did a first-rate job in utilizing Marfa’s flat terrain in giving the film its wide and sprawling look – especially for the Reata Ranch setting. Mellor’s photography also served well in certain scenes; including Leslie and Bick’s arrival in Texas, Luz’s brutal ride astride the Maryland horse purchased by her brother, the funeral of a World War II combatant (which brought tears to my eyes, by the way), and Jett striking oil. “GIANT” also benefited from Boris Leven’s production designs and Ralph S. Hurst’s set decorations. The work of both men aptly conveyed the changes at Reata, due to Leslie’s influence and the passage of time. I wish I could say something profound about Dimitri Tiomkin’s score. But the problem is that I have no real memory of it. The best I can say is that Tiomkin’s score blended perfectly what was shown on screen. I have only one complaint and that was Tiomkin and Stevens’ use of the song “The Yellow Rose of Texas” during the famous diner fight scene and near the end of the movie. I found this use of the song rather bombastic.

If I have one major complaint, it is Marjorie Best’s costume designs. Mind you, some of them were colorful to look at, especially those costumes worn by Elizabeth Taylor, Carroll Baker and the movie’s other actresses. But yes, I had a problem with Best’s costumes. I feel they had failed to reflect the time period in which most of the movie was set – especially those scenes set between the 1920s and 1941. For example, the following images of Elizabeth Taylor are set in the early 1920s:

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And the following two images featured actresses Fran Benedict and Elsa Cárdenas in two sequences set in December 1941:

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The blue dress with white trimming worn by Taylor looked as if it could have been worn in the early-to-mid 1950s. I could say the same about the costumes worn by Benedict and Cárdenas. Whereas the outfit worn by Taylor during the “Arrival at Reata” sequence looked as if it had been designed in the early 1930s. No wonder I that for years, I thought “GIANT”began in the early 1930s. It took the realization that Leslie and Bick’s twin children – Jordy and Judy – were in their late teens in the 1941 sequence. Best earned an Academy Award nomination for her work. And while I cannot deny that her costumes looked very attractive and colorful, I feel they were historically inaccurate and perhaps that Oscar nomination was not fully deserved.

What can I say about the acting in “GIANT”? Three of the cast members – Rock Hudson, James Dean and Mercedes McCambridge – earned Academy Award nominations. It seemed a pity that a few others failed to get one. Overall, the actors and actresses did a good job. Those who portrayed the movie’s Mexican-American characters did not fare well. Elsa Cárdenas gave a solid performance as Bick and Leslie’s daughter-in-law, Juanita Benedict. But Juana proved to be a slightly dull and ideal character with little depth. Actually, I could say the same about all of the Latino characters. I had expected Sal Mineo to be given an opportunity to display his acting skills as Angel Obregón II, a laborer’s son. Instead, Mineo barely spoke any lines and simply served as a symbol of young Latino manhood. Both Fran Benedict and Earl Holliman fared slightly better as Judy Benedict and her ranch hand husband, Bob Dave. Other than the pair’s desire to start a smaller ranch, the pair was able to overcome minimal characterizations to give solid performances. Only Carroll Baker and Dennis Hopper were blessed with interesting characters as Jordy Benedict and younger sister Luz Benedict II. And both made the best of it. One of Baker’s finest moments occurred when Luz becomes silently aware that the man she loved – Jett Rink – was merely using her as some kind of substitution for her mother, whom he had remained in love for a long time. And Hopper did an excellent job of developing Jordy from a soft-spoken young man longing to reject his father’s overt patriarchal expectations in order to become a doctor, to the still soft-spoken young man with a hot temper and balls of steel.

Those characters who portrayed members of the older generation fared better. Jane Withers had a peach of a role in the character of Leslie’s best friend Vashti Snythe. Withers did an excellent job of conveying Vashti’s character from a very shy young woman to a bolder one, who became more adept at socializing with others. Chill Wills, whom I have never taken seriously as an actor before, gave a skillful and subtle performance as Bick’s uncle, Bawley Benedict. Mercedes McCambridge, on the other hand, was fantastic as Bick’s iron-willed sister, Luz Benedict. For the short period she was on screen, McCambridge nearly took my breath away in a performance that could have easily veered into caricature. I found myself wishing she had remained on the screen longer. At least she managed to earn an Oscar nomination.

James Dean also earned a nomination as the movie’s most enigmatic character, the laconic and very ambitious Jett Rink. I noticed that most critics have labeled Dean’s performance as the best in the movie. I doubt if I would agree. Mind you, he gave a superb performance, especially in the movie’s latter half as the older and corrupted Jett. But in the first half, he had this habit of keeping his hands busy, which deflected attention from his co-stars. And I found this annoying. Also, Stevens had a habit of posing him in these iconic shots that struck me as slightly artificial. The last actor to earn a nomination was Rock Hudson, who portrayed the family’s patriarch Jordan “Bick” Benedict. Although critics have been willing to compliment his performance, they tend to prefer his comedic roles. They are entitled to their opinion, but I truly believe that Hudson gave one of his best performances of his career in “GIANT”. Although I admired his portrayal of the ambiguous Bick, whose likability was marred by his bigotry; I found myself blown away by his portrayal of the middle-aged Bick. There were times when I forgot that he had been 29-30 years old at the time. Elizabeth Taylor was the only one of the three leads who did not receive an Academy nomination. Some have expressed no conflict with this oversight. I cannot agree with them. I feel she deserved a nomination just as much as her two male co-stars. Her Leslie Benedict proved to be the heart and soul of “GIANT”. And Taylor did such a superb job of maintaining this sprawling movie on her 23-24 year-old shoulders. She also skillfully conveyed Leslie’s journey from a “fish-out-of-water”, to a strong matriarch who proved to have a great influence not only on her family, but also her new community.

Looking back, I realized that I had been too young to appreciate “GIANT” when I first saw it. The movie proved to be a lot better than I first believed. Although it was not perfect – what movie is – I now realize that George Stevens did a phenomenon job of translating Edna Ferber’s novel into this 201 minutes epic. And the amazing thing is that I was not bored one bit. The movie maintained my interest from start to finish, unlike the 1939 movie “GONE WITH THE WIND”, which bored me senseless during its last hour. And I cannot believe that this movie, along with a few others, lost the Best Picture prize to the likes of “AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS”.