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.