‘Canadian Pacific’ on TCM

Fifteen years after the American transcontinental railway was completed, construction began on the Canadian Pacific Railway to connect British Columbia to Eastern Canada. For the purposes of the 1949 film Canadian Pacific, it’s simply a setting for a western in the mountains and forests of western Canada, where the challenge of finding a route through the Rocky Mountains is compounded by the opposition of local trappers and Indian tribes. It is, shall we say, a portrait that refuses to let history dictate the details of the story.

Randolph Scott stars as Tom Andrews, the buckskin-clad surveyor and “trouble boss,” a kind of foreman who has an instinct for spotting troublemakers and intervening in a very physical way before they have a chance to make any trouble. Scott plays Tom as a classic Scott cowboy: ramrod straight, with a big smile, quick fists, and fast draw. He instantly clashes with the railway’s new doctor, Edith Cabot (Jane Wyatt), a cultured pacifist who abhors violence, before returning to Cecille (Nancy Olson), the frontier girl he met in the local trapper settlements while searching for the pass. It’s a classic dichotomy: the man of the west torn between the wild frontier gal and the civilized society woman. In this pairing, trapper’s daughter Olson is the gentler, more romantic of the two, while Wyatt plays the doctor as a fiery, obstinate woman under the corset and severe speeches.

Needless to say, circumstances toss Tom together with Edith while Cecille’s people are whipped up into an anti-railway frenzy by the wonderfully-named villain Dirk Rourke (Victor Jory), a fur trader who fears his monopoly on the trading posts will be broken by the railway. Stir in stolen dynamite, Indian tribes on the warpath, and liquor-induced labor unrest, and you’ve got a war over the rails. Prolific character actor J. Carrol Naish, usually relegated to roles as villains or even Indians, provides color and comic relief as the sourdough Dynamite Dawson, an old coot with a bushy beard who drawls tall tales (“I once won the Kentucky Derby!”) as the railway munitions man and Tom’s most trusted ally.

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Plays on Saturday, May 11 on TCM

Classic: The 1936 ‘The Last of the Mohicans’

The Last of the Mohicans (Hen’s Tooth), the 1936 version of James Fenimore Cooper’s adventure, stars Randolph Scott stars as trapper and frontiersman Hawkeye. As in the novel, the Caucasian Hawkeye travels with Chingahook, the last chief of the Mohican tribe, and Uncas, Chingahook’s son, and refuses to join the war against the French but becomes involved when he rescues a British officer and two British women from an ambush.

Philip Dunne’s screenplay takes some defining liberties with the novel that were picked up in subsequent versions, notably a romance between Hawkeye and Alice (Binnie Barnes), daughter of a British colonel fighting on the frontier, to take focus from romance between Uncas and Cora, Alice’s younger sister, in Cooper’s story (preserved in the 1920 silent version). But it is an exciting and involving effective screen version, with Scott as a strong-willed but civilized Hawkeye and Henry Wilcoxon playing a British officer with humility and honor, and some impressive outdoor footage amidst stage-bound scenes in studio forests. It also looks forward to John Ford’s “Drums Along the Mohawk” in its portrait of the French-Indian War and the various tribes aligning with one European side or another, and Michael Mann credits this script as a source for his 1992 adaptation with Daniel Day-Lewis. This is clearly a product of its era, with white actors playing the Native Americans under make-up, but it presents the tribes with a sense of dignity and, for all the nation-building patriotism of the ending, offers an interesting take on the real birth of the nation.

While this is not a restored print, it is mastered from a 35mm print and looks just fine, with some wear and print damage, and it is superior to previous DVD releases. No supplements.

More classics at Videodrone

‘The Films of Budd Boetticher Box Set’ on TCM

My review of The Films of Budd Boetticher DVD box set is on the Turner Classic Movies website.

The films of Budd Boetticher have been criminally unavailable on home video. As of October, 2008, only four of his 35 features were available on DVD. That alone makes The Films of Budd Boetticher, a box set of five westerns directed by Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott, an important release. That they represent some of the greatest American westerns of the fifties makes the set essential.

Randolph Scott flags down viewers for "The Tall T"
Randolph Scott flags down viewers for "The Tall T"

Budd Boetticher first directed Randolph Scott on Seven Men From Now, a western made for John Wayne’s production company, Batjac, written by first-time screenwriter Burt Kennedy. It was a lean script with sparing but rich dialogue and Boetticher’s direction matched the writing. Scott was so impressed with the film and pleased with Boetticher’s direction that he approached Boetticher to direct for his own Scott-Brown Productions. For their first production together, Scott acquired a property that screenwriter Burt Kennedy had developed for Batjac, an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s short story The Captives. ” I had found the short story,” Kennedy recalled in an interview. “Duke’s company bought it and I was under contract and I wrote the script.” It was a perfect match for Scott’s persona and the film, renamed The Tall T, was the first of five films Boetticher directed for Scott and partner Harry Joe Brown.

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DVD of the Week – The Films Of Budd Boetticher – Nov 4, 2008

Budd Boetticher, one of the most neglected of American auteurs, gets some much overdue respect with the marvelous box set The Films of Budd Boetticher, a collection of five features starring Randolph Scott and produced by Scott’s production company. The films are not exactly B-movies but they are lean productions, shot on 18-days schedules and small budgets, and not a one of them breaks 80 minutes. In a few of the most urban theaters they might have played bottom of a double bill, but most everywhere else these films were sold on the strength of star Randolph Scott and his track record as a reliable western star. Boetticher took the “limitations” of his stiff, craggy star and turned them into essential elements of his characters, a hard, inexpressive man at home on a horse and in the wilderness, a survivor with few words and no wasted actions. When he moved, it meant something.

The earliest film in the set, The Tall T (1957) is also one of the best and a genuine western classic, with a tiny central cast and vivid characters carved out of the rogues gallery, especially Richard Boone as the charming but ruthless gangleader. Burt Kennedy, who first worked with Budd Boetticher on Seven Men From Now, writes the perfectly tuned, beautifully austere script and Boetticher matches it with a style stripped of all flourish and focused in on the tensions and dynamics that play out in the hostage situation.

The set includes the offbeat black comedy Buchanan Rides Alone and the grim Decision at Sundown (all mastered to fit the 16×9 frame) along with his widescreen classics Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station, both scripted by Kennedy and set in the almost abstract nowhereland of the desert. The latter films, like The Tall T, are lean stories about men on the dangerous, inhospitable frontier, and they stand next to the greatest works of Anthony Mann and John Ford.

Read my DVD review on MSN here.

Also new this week is the cult sci-fi show The Starlost, famously created by Harlan Ellison and Ben Bova, who took their name of the project when they saw what the budget-starved Canadian project turned into. Or at least Ellison did, turning to the pseudonym “Cordwainer Bird” for creator and script credits. Bova’s name stuck as science adviser, much to his chagrin in a show that pointedly ignored all his science advice. Keir Dullea (of 2001 fame) stars as a kind of flower child peacenik who rebels against his repressive agrarian culture (a cross between an Amish village and a religious cult) and the dictatorial leader (guest star sterling Hayden) and discovers his enclosed society is really a sealed pod on a giant crewless space ark that has drifted off course. It’s sort of like Star Trek, except all the new life and new civilizations are discovered in the many sealed pods on this ship, which Dullea and his companions (Gay Rowan and Robin Ward) explore on a scavenger hunt to find the lost secrets of the science and engineering needed to put the ship back on course. The Canadian series was shot on videotape and filled with primitive video blue-screen effects, which are more endearing than convincing, and was shown in the U.S. on NBC in 1973 until it was cancelled. The four disc set features all 16 episodes, most of which have not been seen in syndication for decades. the DVD review is featured in the DVD column’s TV section.
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