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DVD Screenings: From Paul Muni To John Wayne

Reviews
by Leonard Maltin
July 2, 2014 12:00 AM
2 Comments
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I’ve been catching up with a variety of recent DVD releases, exploring a wide variety of films, including Howard Hawks’ Red River, Joseph Losey’s Stranger on the Prowl, and a World War II oddity called The Boy from Stalingrad. Red River is a bona fide classic that’s been given the care and attention it deserves by the Criterion Collection. Its new Blu-ray/DVD combo set is packed with bonus features and even includes a reprint of the movie’s source material, a short novel by Borden Chase that first appeared in serialized magazine form. It’s well worth reading, not only for the author’s lusty prose but to compare the changes Hawks and his writers made in their screenplay, including the controversial conclusion. There’s more good reading in the Criterion booklet: a thoughtful and erudite essay by Geoffrey O’Brien and a fascinating interview with Hawks’ longtime editor Christian Nyby.

Criterion Collection

Red River exists in two versions, which has caused no little confusion and debate over the years: a 133-minute print in which transitions are marked by pages in a book, and a 125 minute print which features narration by Walter Brennan’s character. Both editions appear in their entirety in this Criterion release. The confusion is (or should be) put to rest by Peter Bogdanovich’s early 1960s interview with the filmmaker, who explains that the “book” version was a preview print that he rejected. Hawks feels the narration brings us closer to his characters and tightens the pace of the picture. The only advantage of that print is that it features the climactic shootout as he originally intended it, before a lawsuit by Howard Hughes forced editor Nyby to trim it, to its detriment. Hughes’ rightly felt it too closely resembled the ending of the earlier Hughes-Hawks collaboration, The Outlaw.

Finale aside—and even Hawks admits that it’s an imperfect conclusion—Red River is a majestic and magnificent film. From its opening scene of Coleen Gray proclaiming her strength as a woman to John Wayne—not a typical sentiment in a 1940s Hollywood movie—to the vivid depiction of a cattle drive and a deadly stampede, this is cinematic storytelling at its best. Hearing the director speak about it is a particular treat, even if he is reluctant to share credit for any of the picture’s attributes. Having just read Scott Eyman’s excellent new biography of Wayne, it’s astonishing to think that critics and audiences could watch this dark, daring performance and still think of Wayne as merely a “personality.” I enjoyed all the Criterion bonus features, especially the interviews with Bogdanovich and Molly Haskell.

Olive Films

Stranger on the Prowl (1953) is the latest nugget to come from Olive Films, unearthed from the Paramount archives (which includes the Republic Pictures library as well as miscellaneous titles acquired over the years by NTA). Never afforded an extensive U.S. release, this Italian-made feature gave Paul Muni his first movie role since 1946 and was produced in the long shadow of the Communist blacklist by two then recent Hollywood refugees: screenwriter Ben Barzman and director Joseph Losey. (In her vivid memoir, The Red and the Blacklist, the writer’s widow Norma Barzman describes how director Edward Dmytryk’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Los Angeles almost torpedoed the film: contracts were signed for this and another project with an Italian financier just before Dmytryk’s naming of Barzman and Losey as Communists became public knowledge. When the picture was given a desultory U.S. release, after a year’s delay, their names were replaced with Italian pseudonyms.)

A minor film, Stranger on the Prowl is still interesting to watch, as it adopts the style of Italian neo-realism to tell a simple story. Its major shortcoming is the underwritten leading character, a sullen drifter played by Muni who develops a bond with a poor boy who has stolen a bottle of milk. It’s a bit unsettling to hear all the earthy Italian characters speaking English—which, apparently, the actors learned phonetically—but Losey’s expert use of locations in Leghorn and Pisa and the fluid camerawork, by Henri Alekan, give it a striking immediacy. Originally titled Milk Bottle, Muni acknowledged the film’s indebtedness to earlier (and superior) Italian films by jokingly referring to it as The Milk Bottle Thief.

Warner Archive

Sony Pictures Choice Collection, available through Warner Archives, is another source of rare and unusual titles from decades past. The Boy from Stalingrad (1943) is all but unknown today, which piqued my curiosity. While it’s not a major discovery, it is a provocative time-capsule piece from World War II, when Russia was our ally. This simple B movie focuses on a band of youngsters who have been left to fend for themselves in a burnt-out village as Nazis advance toward them. Forced to assume adult responsibilities, the children rise to the task: the stakes are high, and there is death in the air.

The script never rises above the level of a propagandistic B movie, and its young actors do their best with often-awkward dialogue (“All right, the house is gone, my father’s gone and all of my family. But not Russia, is it?”). As if to aid provincial American audiences, the characters repeatedly and insistently repeat each other’s “foreign” names (Kolya, Grisha, Pavel, Nadya). Still, it’s unusual to find a film that doesn’t make light of children’s courage and resourcefulness in time of war. The screenplay by Ferdinand Reyher is based on a story by Robert Arden and Robert Lee Johnson, and the film was capably directed by Sidney Salkow, the prolific B-movie and television director who attended Columbia University and Harvard Law School! Of the cast, the most familiar actors are Scotty Beckett, the former Our Gang member who had a prolific career through the early 1950s, and Conrad Binyon, who was active on radio and television as well as films, and.

I just spoke to Binyon, who was 12 when he appeared in the film. He has vivid memories of making it, but they have less to do with its content than with the particulars of its production. He did his own singing but had to pretend to play the guitar, which his character does throughout the story. One day a Russian official came to the set to pose for a publicity photo but wouldn’t appear alongside the actor portraying  a Nazi officer! He also remembers that director Salkow was in the Marine Corps at the time of production and came to work every day in his uniform. Years later he caught up with Salkow when the director was teaching filmmaking at Cal State Northridge. (He teasingly asked if Salkow would have used him again had he not become a full-time pilot and the director said yes.) He has only positive memories of Scotty Beckett, with whom he also worked in Good Luck, Mr. Yates the same year—and has no inkling that he would wind up a drug addict.

Apparently the movie was too minor to cause the same kind of awkwardness as other pro-Soviet films of that period (Mission to Moscow, Song of Russia, The North Star) when Congress launched its Communist witch-hunt in the late 1940s. It rates a small footnote in the history of Hollywood during World War II, and I’m glad I got to see it.

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2 Comments

  • mike schlesinger | July 2, 2014 11:59 PMReply

    I love Peter, but he's almost literally the only person who thinks the short version of RED RIVER is better. It is in fact a version prepared for overseas use, since it was easier to redub narration into the local language than splice in rewritten diary pages. The fact that Nyby had to make Hughes' changes only two days before the picture was to open further proves that the longer cut was not a "preview" version. (Gerald Mast's splendid "Howard Hawks, Storyteller" goes into this in plenty of detail.) Peter bases his belief almost entirely on a 1972 interview with Hawks, but this does not take into account that 1) Hawks was 76 at the time and perhaps not 100%, and 2) the director was renowned for not only spinning tall tales but also changing his mind about his own films--I've read two different interviews in which he discusses TWENTIETH CENTURY; in one, he thinks it's one of his three best films, while in the other he dismisses it: "It didn't work at all." A single interview with an elderly man is a pretty thin nail to hang your hat on. In any event, a back-to-back comparison of the two cuts should settle the question once and for all: the longer version is THE version of RED RIVER.

  • Norm | July 2, 2014 6:25 PMReply

    Interesting film discoveries begs the question " What is propoganda?" USA & Russia's backs were propped up together to fight a common foe, but diametrically opposed philosophies "at that time" seemed to have merged since then. While the US policies today are "soft" communism, film makers embrace them to their own advantage, simply blurring the lines that were so obvious then.
    Why so many apocalyptic films , you have to wonder , from the mind of man...

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