Saturday, March 11, 2017

Stubs - Shane

Shane (1953) Starring: Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin, Brandon de Wilde, Walter Jack Palance. Directed by George Stevens. Produced by George Stevens. Screenplay by A. B. Guthrie Jr. Based on the novel Shane by Jack Schaefer (Boston, 1949). Run Time: 118 minutes. U.S.  Color, Western.

As we’ve discussed here before, Westerns were at one time very popular and every major actor seemed to appear in at least one. Add Alan Ladd to that list. After a decade in films, appearing in uncredited roles in such films as The Goldwyn Follies (1938) and Citizen Kane (1941), Ladd would finally become a star by playing a gangster, Raven, in This Gun For Hire (1942). Ladd became known for gangster and film noirs like The Glass Key (1942), Lucky Jordan (1942), Blue Dahlia (1946) and Appointment with Danger (1951). While he would also star in such films as The Great Gatsby (1949), he would find Westerns later in his career.

He would star in such westerns as Branded (1950), Red Mountain (1951), The Iron Mistress (1952), Saskatchewan (1954) and Drum Beat (1954), though none would be bigger than Shane (1953). But despite his stature, Ladd was not the first choice for the role of Shane. Montgomery Clift was director George Stevens’ first choice. But Clift and Steven’s other choice for parts, William Holden for Joe Starrett and Katharine Hepburn for the part of Marian Starrett were not available. The film was nearly abandoned, but Stevens asked Paramount Pictures studio head Y. Frank Freeman for a list of actors under contract and chose Ladd, Van Heflin and Jean Arthur for the parts.

Jean Arthur had retired from films when her contract with Columbia Pictures expired in 1944. She had only made one film since, A Foreign Affair (1948), directed by Billy Wilder. Even though she was 50 at the time Shane went into production in 1951, she agreed to make the film as a favor to Stevens. They had worked together twice before, The Talk of the Town (1942) and The More the Merrier (1943). Stevens considered her "one of the greatest comediennes the screen has ever seen"; perhaps not a ringing endorsement for casting her in a serious western, like Shane.

In the film, Arthur plays Marian, who along with her husband Joe (Van Heflin) are homesteaders in Wyoming. Their son, Joey (Brandon de Wilde), is outside playing when he sees a lone rider dressed in buckskin approaching, Shane (Alan Ladd). He tells Joe that he’s just heading north. When Joey cocks the rifle he’s been playing with, Shane draws his gun with the speed of a gunfighter, which disturbs Joe. He sends Shane on his way.

Just then, a group of armed men rides up led by Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer), a cattle baron who accuses Joe of squatting on his grazing land and orders him off. When Joe refuses, Ryker’s men start to intimidate Joe until Shane reappears at Joe’s side. The men leave, but nothing has been settled.

Shane (Alan Ladd), right, stands by Joe (Van Heflin), Marian (Jean Arthur)
and Joey (Brandon de Wilde) against Ryker's intimidation.

Marian who has been observing everything from inside the cabin, urges Joe to invite Shane for dinner. Joey is excited to have Shane stay for dinner. Shane doesn’t want to talk about his past, but after eating, goes out to chop wood for the family as a way of paying back their kindness. Joe joins in and the two men seem to bond.

Shane chops wood for the family.

Shane spends the night outside and is awakened by Joey playing nearby. Joey tells Shane that his parents want him to stay and mentions his father’s concern about Ryker’s threats. Shane decides to stay and goes into town to buy some work clothes at Sam Grafton’s General Store.

Soon after Shane leaves, another homesteader, Ernie Wright (Leonard Strong), arrives to inform Joe that Ryker had his men destroy his wheat, so he and his family have decided to pull up stakes and leave. But Joe convinces Ernie to stay long enough for the other homesteaders to meet that night.

Back in town, Shane purchases his clothes and then goes next door to the adjoining saloon to buy Joey a bottle of soda pop. Ryker and his men, including Chris Calloway (Ben Johnson), are hanging out in the saloon and they try to intimidate Shane, calling him a sodbuster and tossing whiskey on his new shirt. But Shane doesn’t bite and walks out.

Chris Calloway (Ben Johnson), one of Ryker's men, tosses
whiskey on Shane, while Ryker (Emile Meyer) watches.

At the homesteaders’ meeting, Fred Lewis (Edgar Buchanan), who was in the saloon, tells the group about Shane not standing up to Calloway. Joey, whoever hears this, thinks Shane is a coward. Marian reassures Joey that Shane isn’t a coward, but tells her son not to become too attached to him.

The homesteaders decide to hang together and as a group, they go into town to shop for their Fourth of July celebration. Back at Grafton’s, Galloway again confronts Shane in the saloon, but this time Shane fights back. After a long fistfight, Shane knocks Galloway out. Ryker, who is there, offers Shane a drink and a job, but he turns him down. Next, Ryker accuses Shane of lusting after Marian. Despite Joey’s pleas, Shane gets into a fight with all of Ryker’s men in the saloon. Joe goes in and fights next to Shane, until Grafton, who owns the saloon, demands a halt to the action.

Joe and Shane fight back to back in the saloon against Ryker's men.

But Ryker isn’t through and sends for a notorious gunslinger from Cheyenne, Jack Wilson (Walter Jack Palance).

Back at the farm, Joey gushes about Shane to his mother, who is having her own romantic feelings for him as well.

The next day, Joey admits to Shane that he took a peek at his gun. Shane gives the boy some pointers on shooting. Marian, who is impressed by Shane’s marksmanship, doesn’t want Shane encouraging Joey’s fascination with guns.

Shane demonstrates for Joey his marksmanship.

Ernie complains to one of his fellow homesteaders, Frank “Stonewall” Torrey (Elisha Cook, Jr.), that because Ryker killed his livestock, he’s leaving. Stonewall then goes into town and criticizes Ryker for running Ernie off. Jack Wilson is already there.

Frank "Stonewall" Torrey (Elisha Cook Jr.) plays a homesteader who decides to stand up to Ryker.

At the Fourth of July party, which coincides with Joe and Marian’s 10th anniversary, Marian shares a dance with Shane. Stonewall arrives and tells everyone that Ryker has hired a gunslinger. From the description, Shane figures out it’s Wilson.

Later, back the house, Ryker’s brother Morgan (John Dierkes), accompanied by Wilson, confronts Joe. Claiming that his brother wants to seem reasonable, he offers to buy Joe out. Joe rejects the offer, pointing out that the government already recognizes the homesteader’s’ claims. Morgan points out that because Ryker fought the Indians and worked hard to make the land livable that he is entitled to a fence-free range, after which he and Wilson depart.

Back in town, Ryker tells Wilson to do whatever it takes to beat Joe. To start that process, Wilson provokes Stonewall, who has accompanied another homesteader into town. When Stonewall half-heartedly reaches for his gun, Wilson shoots him down in cold blood, killing him instantly while making it look like self-defense.

In town, Torrey confronts Wilson and is quickly in over his head.

Hired gun Jack Wilson (Walter Jack Palance) kills Torrey in "self-defense".

At Stonewall’s funeral, the Lewis family announces that they are leaving, but when a fire is spotted at the Lewis place, they decide to go back to their homestead and the others offer to help him rebuild.

The Lewis family announces they're leaving at Stonewall Torrey's funeral.

That night, Ryker sends for Joe, who is anxious to bring this to a conclusion, despite Marian’s pleas not to risk his life. Meanwhile, Calloway, who is leaving Ryker, informs Shane that Joe is being set up. Shane trades in his work clothes for his buckskins and puts on his gun. But Joe is determined to go and fights Shane for the privilege. The only way for Shane to stop Joe is to knock him over the head with the butt of his gun. When Joey sees this, he yells hateful things at Shane, but Marian is relieved Joe won’t die. She is obviously sad to see Shane leave. Knowing she’ll never see him again, she shakes his hand goodbye when she really wants to kiss him.

She may have romantic feelings for Shane, but it's a handshake instead of a kiss good-bye. 

When Shane rides off, Joey trails after him. He arrives at the saloon in time to watch Shane confront Ryker and Wilson. Shane manages to get Wilson to draw first and then kills him. He then shoots Ryker when he draws his gun. Morgan draws a bead on Shane with a rifle, but Joey sees it and shouts to warn Shane. Shots are fired and Morgan, too, is killed.

Shane outguns Wilson, killing him before killing Ryker.

Outside the saloon, Joey apologizes to Shane for his angry words and asks him to come back to the homestead. But Shane tells him that he can’t stop being the man he is and can’t go back. Joey notices that Shane is bleeding, but Shane insists he’s okay. Shane rides off into the night while Joey yells after him to come back, even proclaiming that his mother wants him to come back.

Shane says good-bye to Joey before riding off.

Shane would mark Stevens' first Western since Annie Oakley (1935) and would prove to be his last. It was shot on location in Jackson Hole, Wyoming against the backdrop of the Grand Teton Mountains. An entire Western street was built as well as a cemetery. Stevens also worked with artist Joe DeYoung (credited as DeYong) to create authentic costumes and decors. The two apparently traveled together and conducted research in order to achieve the most realistic look they could.

Shane was in production between June and October 1951 but was not released until 1953 due to Stevens' extensive editing. With a budget of over $3 million, Paramount wasn’t convinced the film would make back their investment. They considered selling the film, prior to release, to Howard Hughes for his RKO studio to release. While the deal fell through, Hughes’ enthusiasm for the film is said to have convinced Paramount to treat this film as more than just another Western. Despite Paramount’s initial misgivings, the film would also prove to be a financial success as well with a reputed box-office of $20 million.

While Shane was shot in the Academy ratio of 1.37:1, it was presented in Paramount’s new 1.66 widescreen format in an attempt to give moviegoers something they couldn’t then get on television.  Paramount’s decision to choose Shane was based on the fact that the film was made up mostly of long and medium shots it would not be compromised by the cropping of putting a newly cut aperture plate in front of the projector.

The film was well received by critics when it was released, some considering it one of the best Westerns ever made. The film was nominated for several Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing (Screenplay), Best Supporting Actor for both Palance and de Wilde, winning for Best Cinematography (Color). Stevens would be awarded the Irving J. Thalberg Memorial Award for “high quality of production for the current award year and preceding years.”

So beloved, the film was one chosen by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev when he visited Camp David in 1959. The film was also one of five pictures chosen to tour China after that country lifted a boycott on American films.

While Alan Ladd was the star of the film, perhaps the actor who made the biggest impression was Jack Palance, credited as Walter Jack Palance. He is long, lean and dressed in black as the depiction of evil in the film. He seems to enjoy talking Stonewall into a gunfight, egging him on verbally while slipping on a glove on his shooting hand prior to gunning him down in cold blood. Palance got his first break in acting, as Marlon Brando’s understudy on Broadway in A Streetcar Named Desire, eventually replacing him on stage.

Palance’s first film role was in the film noir, Panic in the Streets (1950). He would thrice be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Sudden Fear (1952), Shane and City Slickers (1991), winning for his portrayal of Curly Washburn in the latter. He would also achieve some fame for hosting the TV Series Ripley’s Believe It Or Not (1982-86).

Brandon de Wilde would also be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Joey Starrett. Mostly known as a TV actor, Shane was only his second film. He was about nine when they were shooting the film. He had been acting since he was seven, winning a lot of attention for his role on Broadway in The Member of the Wedding and eventually playing the same role in the film version in 1952.

While de Wilde was acclaimed for his performance, I frankly find him to be a distraction when watching the movie. The frequent close-ups are so tight they seem to make him look cross-eyed. I know we’re supposed to see this story through his eyes, but I think Stevens hits us over the head with this a little too much.

Is it just me or does de Wilde almost look cross-eyed?

Like many child actors, de Wilde had trouble transitioning to adult lead roles, but unlike others, de Wilde wanted to get out anyway. Music had become his new interest and he tried to put together a record with the help of his friend Gram Parsons, then with the Byrds. According to those in the know, de Wilde and Parsons harmonized very well and even Parsons wrote a song with Emmylou Harris, “My Hour of Darkness” which refers to de Wilde’s death at 30 in a motorcycle accident.

Van Heflin, the other male lead, is remembered mostly as a character actor. A Broadway actor, he made his film debut for RKO in A Woman Rebels (1936), a film starring Katharine Hepburn. Heflin made Westerns almost from the start, appearing in The Outcasts of Poker Flat (1937) and Santa Fe Trail (1940). He also appeared in crime dramas such as the film noir Johnny Eager (1941), for which Van Heflin would win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He would star in Kid Glove Killer (1942), the feature-length directorial debut of Fred Zimmerman.

Adept at a variety of roles across different genres, Heflin appeared in such films as: the comedy/mystery Grand Central Murder (1942), the film noir The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), the historical drama Green Dolphin Street (1947) and the Western, 3:10 to Yuma (1957). His last film was Airport (1970), in which he plays D. O. Guerrero, the man who brings the bomb aboard the airplane. (For everyone who has only flown in a post-9/11 world, this was possible at the time.) He would die of a heart attack in 1971.

I think I’ve seen Shane three times now. The first was in a college class and despite the professor’s claim that we would love the film, I don’t think I was the only one turned off by the prominent placement of de Wilde throughout the story. I remember the professor making the point that even though there were sexual sparks between Marian and Shane, she gives him a hearty handshake because of the production code.

In the intervening years, my opinion of de Wilde’s performance sadly hasn’t changed and I still find it annoying. However, I am now able to see past his character and appreciate the film as a whole more now. Still, I don’t hold it in the same high regard as say Woody Allen who is quoted as saying Shane, " a great movie and can hold its own with any film, whether it's a western or not."

I do see that it is a pretty good Western and tells a pretty interesting story about the struggles of homesteaders against the cattle ranchers that was a major part of settling Wyoming. If you’re a fan of Westerns, then you will no doubt like this film.

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