Friday, February 17, 2012

Buffalo Bill (1944) and The Great Man's Lady (1942) at the Film Forum



The Film Forum in New York City is running a massive William Wellman retrospective, projected in glorious 35-millimeter, through March 1. The Siren's life being what it perpetually is, she hasn't made it there until this week, when she saw a double bill of The Great Man's Lady (1942) and Buffalo Bill (1944).

The Great Man's Lady, in which Barbara Stanwyck ages to over 100, had great merit and some beautiful scenes, including a wedding by a covered-wagon train as a Plains thunderstorm brews; and, later, Stanwyck dragging herself out of a flooded river, looking as beautiful as she ever did. Wellman, who like almost all of her collaborators worshipped Stanwyck, said it was "one of the best performances ever given by anybody." But the Siren isn't going to go into this one, because old friend and brilliant film writer Dan Callahan has a book about Stanwyck just out. It's called Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman, and it just got a fine review from Scott Eyman in The Wall Street Journal. The Siren hasn't read it yet, but she's getting a copy this Sunday, Feb. 19, at the Museum of the Moving Image, where Dan will be presenting a double feature of The Lady Eve and Forty Guns. The movies start at 3 p.m., so do go, or just order the thing off Amazon or wherever. If you need proof of what Dan can do (and the Siren's been praising him to the skies for yonks) here's a sample.

Buffalo Bill can't be called top-tier Wellman, not while prints of anything from Wild Boys of the Road to The Story of G.I. Joe still circulate; but it's more worthwhile than the Siren expected. This Technicolor Western was made by Wellman as a sop to Darryl Zanuck, who told the director that the prestige of The Ox-Bow Incident was all very well, but it sure wasn't going to pay anybody's grocery bills. Zanuck said he'd make the downbeat project anyway if Wellman gave him two pictures with a little more commercial pizazz, and that agreement resulted in this gorgeous, thematically screwy Western.

On one level, it's straight-up Great Man mythology of Buffalo Bill Cody, from the Homeric boom of the narrator, to turning a skirmish between a cavalry regiment and about a half-dozen Cheyenne into "the battle of War Bonnet Gorge." This "battle" lives in the annals of Twentieth-Century Fox and not the West, but it offers astonishing images. The two sides are filmed from a long distance, dead-on, so that the hooves of the horses churn up the water across the expanse of the eerily still water, and the sound comes at you like a squall on the horizon.



Meanwhile Bill can shoot the feathers off an Indian-head penny at fifty paces and looks great in (or out of) buckskin because he's played by Joel McCrea. He can woo the luscious, ever-feisty Maureen O'Hara without smudging her Jungle Red lipstick. Bill can relate to the Indians, because he is a man of the West and knows their ways--and hey, some of Bill's best friends are Indians, like Yellow Hand, played by Anthony Quinn in a loincloth that offers flirtatious glimpses of his clingy flesh-toned briefs. Alas for Buffalo Bill, nowadays when a Native American in a Western holds up his hand to say "How," you can practically hear the audience's eyes rolling toward the ceiling.

That isn't the whole movie, though. There are some startlingly on-target attempts to add a taste of the real history of the white man and Native Americans, a bloody saga that even Technicolor couldn't pretty up. The Great White Eastern types are a sorry lot, references to broken treaties abound, and the buffalo hunts that gave Cody his nickname are explicitly depicted as yet another knife in the heart of the Plains nations.

Another jolt is that while the Siren hasn't nailed down a definitively sourced answer, it sure looks as though some of those buffalo were killed on film. Let's put it this way; the Siren has yet to hear of a trained buffalo able to keel over on command during a stampede. (If you know different, please speak up; here's one instance where the Siren wants to be wrong.) Nothing justifies slaughtering an animal for a movie, in the Siren's view and surely everyone else's; that's why the Siren has always had a hard time with King Solomon's Mines. But the scenes do hammer home the script's bald statement that the animals are dying to feed a fad for buffalo rugs back East. Watching the Cheyenne ride through a field of buffalo heads discarded like trash at a county fair, then later through a literal boneyard, speaks louder than anything Cody says in the movie.



The Siren hasn't read anything on Cody in eons, and her attempts to untangle some of the controversies for this review ended with the realization that she hasn't got all damn year. She can run a blog and a household, or she can figure out what the deal was with Buffalo Bill, she cannot do both. It's somewhat comforting that story writer Frank Winch, screenwriters Aeneas Mackenzie, Clements Ripley and Cecile Kramer, and even Wellman himself, clearly had the same problem. Cody displays heroism in the film's battle, but soon he's condemned to re-enact his glories as a sideshow attraction, cutting down wooden substitutes for the Native Americans we so successfully wiped out. Cody goes on a hunt with a Russian Grand Duke, although we aren't shown that bit o' shootin'. But the movie's other hunts are so canned and merciless that it's clear Cody might as well have taken His Imperial Highness out to a barn and had him pop old Bessie while she was being milked. At the same time--indeed, while he's in the camp with the off-screen Duke--Cody expresses proto-Sierra Club doubts about whether mowing down the buffalo like blades of grass is such a hot idea.

Like so many Westerns, Buffalo Bill wants to have it both ways: sorrow and remorse for the fate of the Native Americans, and valorization of the events that decimated them. One scene gives you Bill tied up in a Cheyenne camp having dirt clumps thrown at him by giggling women in body makeup. Another scene gives you the same Cheyenne, racked by grief, hunger and fear, dancing in preparation for battle, stamping in a circle and wearing the old feathered costumes we've all seen so often. But as filmed by Wellman, from a distance that fills the frame, it's a march to the graveyard, foreboding and tragic.



Linda Darnell has a small role in Buffalo Bill, as a Cheyenne schoolteacher ("Dawn Starlight") who loves Cody from afar. Early in the movie, Darnell sneaks into Maureen O'Hara's bedroom to try on a ruffled dress and what must be about eight or nine petticoats. O'Hara enters and accuses Darnell of being a thief. Darnell flashes back that she wanted to see if she could be as beautiful as a white girl. O'Hara softens and shows the girl the reflection in the mirror--then asks if Darnell has "an Indian brave" who would like to see her in all that finery. Darnell responds with fury at the patronizing reminder, spitting out the word "Indian" and ripping off the dress. The beautiful mirror shots, the dialogue, the mood shattered by the clueless white girl and the pain, frustration and disabling rage of Darnell--it's Imitation of Life, fifteen years before Douglas Sirk filmed it.

Beautiful and schizoid as it is (the cinematographer was Leon Shamroy) the Siren can't imagine someone like Sherman Alexie watching Buffalo Bill and not having a seizure; and there's plenty here that could make others choke on their popcorn as well. As filmmaking, however, it's Wellman. And Wild Bill Wellman always finds a way to lure the Siren.

39 comments:

Tom Block said...

After finally watching Wings the other night (and hey! that's a pretty good movie!) I went back over his filmography, and I'm still a little in shock from just how long and varied his greatness was. He reminds me of Dylan in that they went through so many phases, and handled each one with such mastery, that it's easy to mistake any one segment of his career for the whole thing.* Even late in the game...Yellow Sky and Track of the Cat are not the movies of a man who's content with simply running out the clock.

* I'm also willing to write off The High and the Mighty, the anti-Wellman Wellman movie, as the equivalent of Dylan's Christian phase. But to make an omelet, I guess...

Shamus said...

Siren,

Re Wellman: do you get the sense that many of his scenes are only some rudimentary form of the ideas he wants to convey but he simply goes ahead and puts the "unfinished sequence" into the movie anyway? I mean, Wellman's films have a large number of (what appears like) non-sequitur shots, several of them cutting away rapidly and abruptly.

Equally unaccountable is the startling directness of many of his ideas. In a scene in Purchase Price, where Barbara Stanwyck is dumped by her boyfriend, Wellman quickly cuts to a shot of a garbage truck loudly unloading outside the window where Stanwyck is standing. In Track of a Cat, he shoots the funeral from a camera placed inside the grave. Your description of the Darnell-O'Hara sequence seems (I've not seen the movie yet) to fit this side of Wellman.

But there is still something slightly unsatisfactory about many of his films: torn between these two odd extremes.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here's my boyfriend Bill with Barbara Stanwyck

DavidEhrenstein said...

Eymann's right about Stanwyck in The Thorn Birds that climactic speech threw me to the floor it was sopowerful.

grandoldmovies said...

I haven't seen "Buffalo Bill," but I once saw an interview with the elderly Wellman (on the doc series "the men who made the movies") who claimed that his original script set out to demythologize Cody. However, he and his screenwriter decided they couldn't use that script because (per Wellman) it would disappoint the kids. The pair ended up burning the whole thing; then they went out and got "very drunk." Then, Wellman said, he went and made the myth, and it always made him sick to look at this film.

From your description, however, it sounds as if Wellman still tried to sneak in some de-mything points. He was a director of great integrity.

grandoldmovies said...

PS: Wellman, of course, tells the story much more colorfully than my prosaic description.

Trish said...

I'm ashamed to say I haven't seen either of these films. Was it while making Buffalo Bill that Joel McCrea decided he wanted to play cowboys instead of erudite everymen?

X. Trapnel said...

"erudite everymen"

Bullseye, Trish. I've never understood the comparison between McCrea and Gary Cooper. It's easy to imagine the former with a book.

AndrewBW said...

David, all I can say is your boyfriend has great taste. I'm not sure when I fell in love with Barbara Stanwyck but it was many many years ago, no doubt at Film Forum or Theater 80.

Siren, thank you for the pointer to Dan Callahan's new book. I'm looking forward to it immensely.

"Slight rosiness? It's as red as The Daily Worker and just as sore!"

AndrewBW said...

Thinking about it now, I realized when it was that Stanwyck hit me - when Henry Fonda helps her on with her new shoes in "The Lady Eve."

Trish said...

That's true, X. They each do humility well, but McCrea is more worldly and cynical.

Vanwall said...
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Vanwall said...

I used to see "Buffalo Bill" on TV every few months of my early life, seems like. It was one of the Westerns that the unquestioning liked; program directors and station owners must be in that group, or they got it cheap in a package deal, 'smore like it. By the end of my younger years, I couldn't really watch it anymore, along with scads of other oaters that had "the only good Indian..." syndrome deep down inside them. McCrea was pretty good in this one, altho I liked him better in "Colorado Territory".

Wellman is an energy director, he uses film to emphasize that aspect, which leads to plenty of complimentary quiet scenes to bring that out. I love his work.

One day I was talking to my late grandmother, who had some curious film connections as a little girl; she once sold a puppy to the nice young lady that came by their farm near Golden, CO to buy eggs and fresh milk. Mary Pickford liked that one pup a lot, and she was ever after my grandmother's favorite movie star. She also told me about a long line of vehicles that passed by there once - Buffalo Bill's funeral procession to Lookout Mountain seemed like a show all by itself, she stated.

Vanwall said...

Oh, and Siren - you should try and catch Wellman's "Beggars of Life", with Louise Brooks, Richard Arlen, and Wallace Beery on Feb. 20th, it oughta be great on the big screen in a good print.

MrsHenryWindleVale said...
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rcocean said...

I liked "Buffalo Bill" although it sadly did not show America's genocidal treatment of the Native American. Unlike most Americans, I rarely watch Westerns. These "Westerns" don't give us the truth, which is white men raped and stole this continent from its native people.

As someone who lives in the USA, I feel deeply ashamed that some native american was robbed so that I might live here. I was going to give my land back to the nearest native american tribe but decided it was much more easier just to express my sympathy, and curse the White Men who allowed me to immigrate here after the country had been stolen.

Thank you.

Shamus said...

I never thought of McCrea as cynical. Rather, he is probably the archetypal Jacques Tourneur protagonist and one who seems to most share Tourneur's temperament (Dana Andrews is also a contender): modest and withdrawn even shy, but also calculating and fiercely, prodigiously talented. Tourneur makes great use of McCrea in Wichita and Stars in my Crown.

And, if anything, the fact that McCrea generally chose to work with Tourneur over someone like DeMille (something I have a hard time imagining Cooper doing) makes him more endearing.

The Siren said...

Vanwall, I already have my Beggars of Life ticket. :)

Tom, love your comment and so agree. Wellman gave a lot of interviews after retirement and always seemed to be complaining, albeit in such a drily funny way it's impossible to get annoyed. He said many times that he went to great efforts to make Track of the Cat as a black-and-white movie in color, and that nobody noticed. Well, we're certainly noticing now. And Wings is great; if you surf the Net for prior reviews you'll find a lot of surprising dismissiveness, but this restoration really seems to have bowled people over. I missed the screening and can't wait to get the DVD.

Grandoldmovies, that certainly sounds like Wellman and I can believe it. Ben Sachs, a Chicago critic, was tweeting at me that Wellman had wanted to make the movie more subversive but was stymied by the studio, and that he hated the cameo by Tiny Tim Cratchit that closes this film. This also sounds plausible. All you have to do is watch the film to know that *something* was causing a push-me-pull-you ambivalence about the subject matter. It makes it very interesting but keeps it from the kind of coherence that could make it great.

Rcocean, I have no idea what you're saying, although the sarcasm comes through loud and clear.

Vanwall, now I have to go to my Pickford bio and figure out if I can find the name of that puppy. I love the idea of your grandma's pup at Pickfair, wonder if the critter made it there.

The Siren said...

Shamus, what you're describing comes across mostly to me as added texture; I love Wellman, his directness and what someone else (C. Mason Wells) was describing as his expansiveness. And his visual sense is just beautiful. There are, come to think of it, a lot of very WHUMP--HERE'S A POINT shots in Wellman. I'm thinking about the end of Wild Boys of the Road, when the main character does a handstand only to come up, grinning, to be confronted with the face of his best friend who lost an arm. And yet it's perfect; subtlety is often overrated.

Trish, I don't know the answer to your question. The site They Shoot Pictures, Don't They has Buffalo Bill listed under the "approach with caution" segment on Wellman and I have to say that's fair, but it's fascinating all the same.

AndrewBW, anything from Dan is worth reading, and Stanwyck is a lifelong passion for him, so I'm sure it will be very worth all our while.

MrsHenryWindleVale said...
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MrsHenryWindleVale said...
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MrsHenryWindleVale said...

What I was trying to post, earlier on, concerned Tiny Tim Crachit and his cameo. I'm glad the somebody has spoken of it by now.

Perhaps, though, given grandoldmovies' quote about "disappoint[ing] the kids," it was decided by someone-or-other that "kids" were this film's designated audience, and this cameo was an attempt to address them?

Shamus said...

Siren, you used the word "schizoid", so I merely wondered if you too saw this peculiar unevenness; I wasn't trying to diss Wellman.

For another example of his oddness, you need to go no further than the opening shots to Public Enemy- he takes a hell of a lot of time tracking across various streets and slums and for no apparent reason: there is a lot of dead time. But Night Nurse's opening shots (also a track through various streets) are shockingly direct and memorable (even if Wellman, whether consciously or not, is ripping off the opening to Murnau's Der Letzte Mann). And the Cagney and the Stanwyck starrers released the same year. Hard to explain such an uneven output.

readerman said...

I don't think I've ever seen this, but I do like Joel McCrea. Thanks for the link to the review of the Stanwyck book. Sounds like a good one.

Dan Callahan said...

Thanks for the shout-out, Siren!

I have a whole Wellman chapter in my Stanwyck book. "Night Nurse" is clearly the best of the five films she made with him, but "So Big!" is also worthwhile. It's tough and speedy and very ambivalent about the self-sacrifices of its heroine, and you get to see Stanwyck and Bette Davis share scenes together, and Davis is at her early flashiest blondest.

The Siren said...

I actually read So Big and remember it being a terribly sad book, so it was probably perfect for Stanwyck at that stage.

Dan Callahan said...

Wellman's version of "So Big!" is also very sad, and he gets his effects by compressing everything, by jabbing and cutting quickly and often looking away from his heroine's suffering.

In a single shot, he has Stanwyck looking up from scrubbing a floor, and in just a few seconds they get across the idea that this woman's body and spirit have been broken. It's really one of his best, I think.

DavidEhrenstein said...

When Maureen Stapleton won the Oscar for Reds playig Emma goldman (actually a mixture of Pauline Kael and Emma Goldman) sha thanked at the last Joel McCrea -- whereupon the camera cut to Jack and Warren(who were sitting next to one another) mouthing in simultaneous incredulity "JOEL MCCREA???!!!"

When asked about it in the press room Stapleton simply said "I've alwasy loved him."

The Siren said...

Oh David I LOVE that Oscar story; such a good one for the coming week.

Kirk said...
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Kirk said...

Barbara Stanwyk is one of my favorite "Golden Era of Hollywood" actresses. Growing up, I only knew her for TV show Big Valley. Like AndrewBW, it was The Lady Eve that made me a fan. Since then, I've liked her in everything, comedic or dramatic, I've seen her in. So, I'll definitely have to seek The Great Man's Lady out.

Also liked The Ox-Bow Incident, The Story of GI Joe (in which one scene, where Robert Mitchum talks about writing letters home to the next-of-kin, looks like it might have been a blueprint for a similar one in Saving Private Ryan) and other Wellman movies, so I guess I'll have to seek Buffalo Bill out, too.

Trish said...

That's so sweet! Thank you for the anecdote, David.

DavidEhrenstein said...

You're welcome.

Can't wait to read your book , Dan. There's no one quite like Barbara Stanwyck. I think the key to her greatness is that she never signed with a major and thus wasn't "shaped" in a particular way --like Metro or Fox stars. She looked for good roles and by God she got them! Th eLady Eve, Stella Dallas and Double Indemnity are just the tippy top of a whole pile of great roles -- and that includes less-than-great films she made teriffic. She NEVER gave less than EVERYTHING.

Larry A. said...

Thanks for the tip on Buffalo Bill. I watched it on Movieplex on Demand, though the print was spotty. It was entertaining, partly because it tried to raise some contradictory points about the Old West.

By the way, how about a shout-out to Edgar Buchanan, just for those throw-away scenes about delivering the mail. And Buchanan's touching scene when he learns he's being retired. In today's film world, there would be no narrative need for those scenes and they would be the first to get cut. But it's those seemingly unnecessary scenes and minor characters that I like the most in classic Hollywood movies.

The Siren said...

Larry, you're so right. I should resolve to spend more time on things like Buchanan's character; they are part of the texture of old movies that I often miss when I watch new ones.

Groggy Dundee said...

Thanks Siren. I have Buffalo Bill recorded on Tivo so I'll have to check it out soon.

Wellman's hit-and-miss for me but I do like his war movies, especially Battleground. His best Western (that I've seen) is probably Westward the Women, which has the same grim, unsentimental attitude of his best works.

Rozsaphile said...

Buffalo were killed on film -- but not exactly for a film -- in Richard Brooks's The Last Hunt, for which they synchronized the movie shooting with the Park Service's annual culling of the herd. Since the movie argued in favor of the animals and against the psycho killer played by Robert Taylor in one of his best performances, you might say it was on the side of the angels. But that doesn't make it pleasant to watch. The cast was unhappy, and the picture was not a hit.

The Rush Blog said...

I heard that in order to direct "THE OX-BOW INCIDENT", Wellman also had to direct "BUFFALO BILL". Needless to say, he loathed the latter film.

Lemora said...

Barbara Stanwyck built a beautiful wood and stone house on a knoll in Northridge, CA, on Devonshire Blvd. in 1937. She lived there for three years, until selling the house to Jack and Virginia Oakie in 1940. (Various internet sites have her moving up the road to another ranch when she married Robert Taylor. A current bio has them moving to a ranch in Mandeville Canyon.) The 1937-built house still stands, derelict, and has since the 1980's. My mom knew Mrs. Oakie from the Northridge Women's Club and went to the house. Widowed Virginia Oakie willed it to her alma mater USC, which, being across the city, never used it and let it fall into disrepair. A developer recently was set to buy it from USC, but when I moved away from the area a year and a half ago, this had not happened. So, there the house sits, surrounded by two behemoth shopping centers to the east and the north, and ordinary suburbia to the west; surrounded by untended eucalyptus trees, behind locked gates. I used to say, "Hello Babs!" whenever I drove past it, remembering the horse ranching west Valley of my childhood. None of Stanwyck's biographies seem to mention this house.