Sunday, November 9, 2008

"Horses and dogs were growing shaggy-haired like never before."

You know, 1960s films sometimes fascinate me. Mark Harris' book Pictures of a Revolution, focusing on 1967, is a good study in general, sort of summing up a time when TV was well established and the theatrical short was dying and the old studio system falling by the wayside. So movies tended to become either more experimental, more tradiitionalist, or pushed for more spectacle without quite succeeding. The "bigger is better" approach really showed in terms of those monster 1960s comedies (and their close cousins, the musicals): Cinemascope (introduced in the 1950s) had become a near standard and was used for most of these, running times grew out of control, huge casts, enormous stunt scenes, and plots which were "epic," or tried to be. It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is the best known of these (and my least favorite), along with several Blake Edwards efforts, the infamous Casino Royale(a mess, but one which captivates), and things like Those Magnificent Men in Your Flying Machines(a kind of combination eic comedy qand quintessential 1960s Euro-American co-production with an "international all-star cast" and another favorite). These movies were big, loud, colorful, overstuffed, uneven, and seldom came in under two hours and tended to involve either disparate groups or disparate individuals competing or quarrelling for a McGuffin of some kind (a fortune, a racing prize, etc.). Anyway, last night I rewatched a personal fave which I hadn't re-examined critically in ages: The Hallelujah Trail (1965).

The Hallelujah Trail (or Trail as I shall probably shorten it for most of this post), like many of its brethren, was helmed not by a noted comedy director, but by John Sturges, the man who brought you The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven. The stirring score is by Sturges' old colleague Elmer Bernstein, the cinematography is majestic, and it's not just an epic comedy but a period Western too (I'm also a sucker for funny Westerns, and will write more about some others later on). There's a rousing jaunty title theme with a full chorus and lots of handclapping, an incredble roster of talent (including a slew of character actors), nice title caricatures of the stars, and later on, some grapic maps from DePatie Freleng, and the whole thing clocks in at a whopping two hours and 39 minutes (much of the flabby second half in particular needed reducing and a few laps around the gym). Top-billed is that unsung comic genius.... Burt Lancaster?! Well, not quite (and easily parallel to Spencer Tracy in It's a Mad, Mad World), but he mostly plays it straight and succeeds, having fun as the cigar comping, scowling, by the book cavalry veteran Thaddeus Gearhart (the character names are more Preston Sturges than John Sturges at times). And what's the driving element, the big McGuffin (which is not quite the Real McGuffin here, as it's a constant presence): Whiskey!

Radio great John Dehner provides voice-over narration (and translates several exchanges between Indian characters), moving deftly from pompous splendour and "Oh pioneer West" to wry, dry documentarian descriptions, and often finding himself at a loss to describe certain of the cruder or more absurd happenings or attitudes. As a kid, due to the tonal similarity, I actually confused Dehner in this (he's uncredited) with John "Mr. Slate" Stephenson! Anyway, the Frontier Gentleman, in his most dulcet tones, informs us that in the year 1867, panic grips the city of Denver.

The local miners, led by the always fun Dub Taylor, are worried since all the signs point to a long harsh winter, and in a matter of weeks, the city will be bone dry, with not a drop of booze anywhere. To remedy this, a massive shipment is ordered, to be rushed from the Wellingham Freighting company. Oowner Frank Wellingham, played by Brian Keith at his best and angriest, is a taxpayer and a good Republican (one of the better running gags in the film). Wellingham has his entire company tied up in the venture (40 wagons) and demands cavalry protection.

Of course, there are other conflicting interests: those pesky Injuns, of course. A very funny (and unusually brief) scene explains why only one tribe ran out, a band of Soux led by Chief Five Barrels (Robert J. Wilke from Sturges' The Magnificent Seven and Sirk's Written on the Wind). Wilke's task is basically to just "look Indian" and have a funny character name. More effective is Martin Landau in a mostly nonverbal role as the chief's sidekick, Walks Stooped Over (and of course, he does). Next we have a group of Irish teamsters, driving the precious cargo and threatening to strike (a subplot which never gels and mostly just adds to the running time.) The biggest threat comes from a mob of temperance ladies, led by Cora Templeton Massingale, played by a terrific Lee Remick as a charismatic, sexier ancestor of Carrie Nation (but just as determined and eager to destroy intoxicating spirits). The miners themselves later start out, anxious to see that their drinkables arrive. The positions of all parties are displayed on maps, with Dehner deftly doing his best to keep track of who was where and when (reaching a high point at the Battle of Whiskey Hills).

Absolutely priceless, and probably the aspect of the film which has worn best (outside of the narration from radio's Paladin) is Donald Pleasence. Pleasence was always a quirky screen presence, to say the least, and while he was in a few comedies, never this kind of comedy, nor this kind of role. He earned screen immortality in my young eyes as "Oracle" Jones, accurately described by Keith as a "sooth-saying sot": a revered trail scout who sees visions and portents of the future and the correct path... but only when suitably braced with whiskey With his bald head, red flannel underwear, and those blue eyes which conceivably *could* see into realms unknown to mere mortals, Pleasence's Oracle is a true oddball. Nearly all parties (save the temperance ladies) respect Oracle, either due to his experience, his visions, or possibly just his iron-cast liver. Whenever he takes a sip or a swig, a heavenly chorus sings "Hallelujah!" Pleasence bugs his eyes out before announcing "Now I see it!"

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