A+ List: The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (also Lone Star & My Darling Clementine)

Has there ever been an ingénue with a more perfectly comical name than Trudy Kockenlocker? Or a code-era Hollywood movie that so deftly outwitted the censors of its time? There are funnier movies than The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, but not many, and none this funny that flew in the face of traditional morality with as much glee.

With its deft mixture of physical and verbal comedy, and its daring break from the conventions of its day, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek earns a spot on my A+
, where I honor the great films that I have loved for decades.

But before we get to Trudy Kockenlocker’s dilemma, I’d like to name two other A+ movies that I’ve already written about:

  • Lone Star: John Sayles’ portrait of a small Texas town
    turned 20 last month, and I’ve just added it to this list. I discuss it in this Fandor Keyframe article.
  • My Darling Clementine: You can read my Blu-ray review.

Now, back to The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.

To truly understand the miracle of this movie, you should know a bit about the restrictions Hollywood filmmakers had to contend with in 1944. Amongst many other limitations, you could not show a woman visibly pregnant. You could not even use the word pregnant. And that unmentionable condition could only be the natural result of a marriage license.

Those rules went into effect in 1934. But the reality of World War II added more restrictions. You had to celebrate patriotism, and could not show the American military in anything but a positive light.

Despite these restrictions, writer/director Preston Sturges created a comedy about a small-town teenage girl who goes out partying with a whole platoon, and comes home pregnant. And he did it without breaking any of the rules. For instance, Trudy vaguely remembers that she got married on her night with the boys–even though she can’t remember her husband’s name or face.

Even crazier, the story works as a parody of the Christmas story. Trudy, like Mary, is a virgin who gets impregnated by an unseen entity. She has to leave town. And when she finally gives birth–during the Christmas season, no less–she gives birth to a miracle. Of course, since it’s a Preston Sturges movie, it’s a very funny miracle.

If you’re going to have fun with the Christmas story, you need a Joseph, and Sturges created the perfect comic Joseph in Norval Jones, and found the perfect actor to play him in comedian Eddie Bracken. Rejected by the draft board, Norval is the loser without a uniform that no one wants. Bracken, a homely fellow who could never be a straight leading man, gives him a jittery fear of almost everything, but a sense of gallantry that inevitably wins you over.

Norval is hopelessly in love with Trudy, and she uses him horribly. When she becomes pregnant, he’s the obvious fall guy. And a fall guy is an important thing to have when the girl’s father is the town’s short-tempered constable.

That short-tempered constable is played by William Demarest–the brightest gem in Sturges’ regular repertory company of comic supporting actors. Specializing in playing cranky men with little education, his characters tended to be rough, gruff, and suspicious. His performance as Trudy’s father is one of his best–tough and bossy, but completely unable to control his daughters.

Speaking of those daughters, Betty Hutton rocketed to stardom through her performance as Trudy. She’s impulsive, confused, and terrified. Even after she realizes that she loves Norval (don’t tell me you didn’t see that coming), she’s overwhelmed with fear. And she carries her end of the comic dialog with the perfectly-timed training of the professional she was.

Diana Lynn plays Trudy’s younger but smarter sister with ironic detachment. She has many of the film’s best punchlines, usually at her father’s expense. He’s not always sure that he’s been insulted.

The laughs are nearly constant, and well varied between dialog and slapstick. Rapid-fire comic dialog was one of Sturges’ strengths, and in many scenes you have to listen closely to get all the gags. And the physical comedy is just as impressive. Demarest was in his 50s when he shot The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, yet he takes several impressive and always funny pratfalls that most people wouldn’t do at 30. Bracken could fall almost as well, and in one great moment walks through a screen door.

From 1940 through ’44, Sturges wrote and directed some of the funniest, most daring, and sexy comedies to come out of Hollywood’s factories. I’ve already told you about The Lady EveThe Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is even better. To my mind, it’s his masterpiece.

And Paramount, which owns the film, has made it available for free on its  Paramount Vault Youtube channel.

This article was altered hours after it was posted. I corrected the headline, and added the final paragraph about streaming the movie.

Jewish Film Festival Preview, Part 2

Since I last wrote about this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, I’ve seen five more films and a TV show that will screen at this year’s festival. Here’s what I thought of them, in order from best to worst:

A The Settlers

I found this documentary extremely difficult to watch, but also desperately important to experience. It tells the history of the West Bank settlements, mostly through the words of determined, militant, racist, religious fanatics with a worthat’s at odds with basic human decency. It leaves you feeling that there’s no hope for a just peace–probably because there really isn’t any hope. You won’t get this one out of your system easily.

A- Natasha

This coming-of-age drama deals with cultural conflicts and the side effects of sexual exploitation. Mark is 16, lives in a suburb of Toronto, and doesn’t know what to do with his life. Then members of his extended family arrive from Russia. One of them, Natasha, is 14 years old, sexually experienced, and has just become his cousin by marriage. She’s sullen whenever her mother is around, but loosens up (maybe too much) when free of maternal contact. The two teenagers soon become lovers, but that clearly can’t last. A very touching film.

What makes this a Jewish film? The characters are all ethnically Jewish, but their Russian identities seem far more important to the story than their Jewish ones.

B+ Germans and Jews

How do today’s German’s deal with the horrible crimes committed by their parents and grandparents? How can they face their own prejudices in a country with almost no Jews? And how do modern Jews relate to modern Germans? Janina Quint points her camera and microphone at several thoughtful and intelligent Germans and Jews, and gets insightful and fascinating answers. One Israeli-raised Jew claims he feels safer in Germany than in Israel. As I watched this conventionally-made documentary, I couldn’t help wishing that the USA would face its own crimes as well as the Germans have faced theirs.

B+ Song of Songs

Most films about shtetl life give it a nostalgic glow, with only the anti-Semites outside causing real trouble. But this story of a 10-year-old boy with a wild imagination barely mentions pogroms. His problems stem from a sadistically stern teacher and a crush on a beautiful orphan girl living with his family. The simple story is slow, low-key, and touching. If for no other reason, see Song of Songs for the photography, which appears to have been inspired by Vermeer.

  • Castro, Wednesday, July 27, 12:00 noon
  • Roda, Wednesday, August 3, 2:05

B- How to Win Enemies

I can’t really call this Argentine crime mystery a thriller, but it has a likeable protagonist and a nice little puzzle of a story (even if I guessed the bad guy way too soon). Lucas, a young lawyer working in the family business and a fan of crime fiction, falls for a con and loses a lot of money. While everyone else insists that he was just a random mark, Lucas is certain that he was targeted by someone who knows him well. And thus a mystery must be solved.

What makes this a Jewish film? Lucas is Jewish, and the film uses his brother’s very Jewish wedding as a framing device.

C The Writer

The new TV show by Sayed Kashua is even more autobiographical than his hit Arab Labor. This time, his alter-ego protagonist is the creator or a sitcom called Arabic Work (I don’t know if the title difference is intentional or a subtitle error), and is so obviously Kashua it’s almost embarrassing. The Jew/Arab conflict barely appears here. The story of a commercially successful, desperately unhappy man blurs the line between fiction and autobiography a little too much.

You can also read my previous reviews of four other SFJFF films.

What’s Screening: July 8 – 14

Bruce Lee, John Wayne, Bugs Bunny, and pregnant nuns grace this week’s Bay Area screenings.

And not only Bugs Bunny. This weekend we get two collections of Loony Tune classics, both in 35mm.


The (Not Just) Hong Kong Action Film Series continues Friday through Sunday, as it will throughout July.

New films opening

B+ The Innocents, Clay, Albany, Rafael, opens Friday
Only months after the end of World War II, a Polish nunnery experiences a rash of new-born babies–the result of multiple rapes. A young, French doctor does what she can to help them, but she must fight with the extremely strict mother superior. The story becomes a battle between grim-faced, unbending religion and humanism–both secular and spiritual. Read my full review.

B Hunt for The Wilderpeople, Embarcadero, Guild, California, Rafael, opens Friday

This New Zealand comedy starts out wonderful, touching, and very funny, but it wears out its welcome too soon. The story concerns a troubled boy (Julian Dennison) sent to a new foster home in the very rural outback. Soon the boy and his reluctant foster father are living in the woods, and the government creates a dragnet to catch these two escapees from civilization. Read my SFIFF report.

Promising events

A Salute to Chuck Jones, Castro, Sunday, 12:00

A celebration of Warner Brothers’ most talented animator. The short cartoons to be screened, all in 35mm, include such classics as What’s Opera, Doc?, One Froggy Evening, Feed the Kitty, Duck Amuck, and Rabbit of Seville. The ticket prices are high–$17 to $150–but it’s a benefit for the Cartoon Art Museum and the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity.

Popcorn for Breakfast presents: Looney Tunes in 35mm, Roxie, Saturday, 11:00am

If the above Salute to Chuck Jones is too pricey for you, here’s another Loony Tune collection that also includes many of the best short cartoons to come out of Warner Brothers (although not my favorite, Duck Amuck). And this one costs only $8; free for kids under 12.

Enter The Dragon, Great Star Theater, Saturday, 3:00 & 9:00

I haven’t seen this movie in years, and while I liked it when I saw it, I was never a big fan. This is the flick that brought the martial arts genre to America, and made Bruce Lee famous on this side of the Pacific, even if he didn’t live to enjoy the fame. Look closely to catch Jackie Chan as a nameless fighter unlucky to go up against Lee. Part of the (Not Just) Hong Kong Action Film Series.

Recommended revivals

A+ Ran, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 7:00

New 4K Restoration
I doubt anyone else ever made a movie as sad, as tragic, as despairing of the human condition, and yet as beautiful as Kurosawa’s reworking of King Lear. To watch Ran is to experience, in your gut, that many people are capable of unspeakable evil. And while these people inevitably pay the price for their ambitions, so do countless innocents. Unlike Shakespeare, Kurosawa considers what his king did before he became old, and it isn’t pretty. The film, on the other hand, is as visually gorgeous as movies get. Read my Kurosawa Diary entry.

B+ Iron Monkey, Great Star Theater, Saturday, 7:00

I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a Hong Kong action flick that felt so much like a Hollywood swashbuckler. The evil rulers of a village are stealing everything they can while oppressing the people. Luckily for the average peasant, a masked criminal called Iron Monkey robs from the rich and gives to the poor. Meanwhile, a traveling physician and his young son, both martial arts masters, turn up to help. Funny, rousing, and thoroughly entertaining. Another (Not Just) Hong Kong Action Film Series screening.

B+ Hitchcock/Truffaut, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 7:00

In the early 60s, François Truffaut interviewed Alfred Hitchcock and together they created one of the great books on filmmaking. Now documentarian Kent Jones has turned that book into a film. He rightly focuses on cinematic technique as he explains the creation of the book and what it taught filmmakers. Top directors, including Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, and Martin Scorsese, talk onscreen about Hitchcock’s work–how he used camera placement, editing, and other tools of the filmmaker’s art. I enjoyed the movie very much, but I’m biased. Read my full review.

B+ Shanghai Noon, Great Star Theater, Sunday, 3:00

Jackie Chan and a not-yet-famous Owen Wilson star in this outrageous sendup on the Western. As a Chinese Imperial Guard on a mission to Nevada to rescue a princess, Chan gets to play the fish out of water. Wilson plays a would-be train robber who thinks he’s the star of a dime novel. Despite their very different comic styles, the two stars find great chemistry. The sequel, Shanghai Knights, is even better. Another part of the (Not Just) Hong Kong Action Film Series.

B The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am

There’s a cartoon-like quality to a lot of Wes Anderson’s work, so it isn’t surprising that he would eventually make a real cartoon. Based on a story by Roald Dahl, Fantastic follows the adventures of a very sophisticated but not altogether competent fox (voiced by George Clooney) as he tries to outwit a farmer and keep his marriage together. Children and adults will find different reasons to enjoy this frantically-paced comic adventure.

B The Searchers, Castro, Sunday, 6:00

A bitter and racist Civil War veteran (John Wayne) spends years searching for his niece, kidnapped by Comanches. At first he wants to save her, but as the years go by, he starts talking about killing her, because she’s now “more Comanch than white.” Talk about an anti-hero. Shot in VistaVision, the movie looks splendid, has many great moments, and contains one of Wayne’s greatest performances. The closing shot itself is unforgettable. Most John Ford fans consider The Searchers his masterpiece. I disagree. I find it marred by a rambling, occasionally absurd plot, and a very unlikable protagonist (probably Wayne’s least sympathetic character). On a double bill with the much better The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which I list below in the Lebowskies.

B Roman Holiday, Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday

Gregory Peck and “introducing” Audrey Hepburn fall in love through an extremely contrived plot in this entertaining romantic comedy. She’s a runaway princess, and he’s a reporter hoping for a scoop. But the real star is Rome; shooting overseas locations was a new thing in the early 1950s. Directed by William Wyler, from a story by Dalton Trumbo. On a double bill with Midnight.

Lebowskies (frequently-revived classics)

Pregnant nuns, and no; it’s not a comedy. My review of The Innocents

B+ Religious drama

Written by Sabrina B. Karine, Alice Vial, Pascal Bonitzer, Anne Fontaine

Directed by Anne Fontaine

Religion at its worst–stern, rule-based, shameful, and dictatorial–comes up against basic human values in this drama about a nunnery experiencing a rash of new-born babies.

Yes, that description suggests a Monty Python-like farce, not a serious drama. In the case of The Innocents, it brings layers of tragedy as well as much-needed redemption.

The setting is rural Poland, December, 1945. The horrors of Nazi occupation had been replaced by the horrors of Communist occupation the previous spring. When Russian soldiers overran the area, they broke into the convent and raped the nuns. Now many of them are pregnant.

People often stigmatize rape victims in today’s most liberal societies; imagine what it would have been like 70 years ago for Polish nuns. They’re desperately afraid of letting anyone outside of the convent know about the situation. Even within the convent the subject is tricky. Bringing to a Polish or Russian doctor would be unthinkable.

The extremely strict mother superior doesn’t help. She keeps her charges on a very short leash, and wants to smother certain topics of conversation. As the film progresses, we discover just how horrifying–and how horrified–she is.

Luckily, there’s a French Red Cross hospital nearby. It’s there only to take care of wounded French soldiers. A rebellious nun sneaks out of the convent, finds the hospital, and begs help from a young woman doctor named Mathilde (Lou de Laâge). Hiding her altruistic act from her superiors, Mathilde visits the convent as often as possible, while hiding what she’s doing and maintaining her duties. (Were there really French soldiers and French doctors in 1945 Russian-occupied Poland ? Seems unlikely to me. But this is a French film, so it needed a French heroine.)

Brought up in a French Communist household, Mathilde doesn’t believe in God (whether she still believes in Communism isn’t clear). But basic kindness is in her nature, and she clearly represents a secular humanism that’s light years away from the mother superior’s strict rules.

The Innocents doesn’t suggest that religion is inherently evil. Most of the nuns are decent, loving human beings who try to find inspiration from their condition despite the mother superior.

Mathilde enjoys a romance (more of a fling, really) with one of the French Red Cross doctors, and she eventually brings him to the nunnery to help. He’s a Jew who got out of France just in time; his parents died in the Holocaust. When he arrives at the nunnery, I thought the mother superior would object to the presence of a man. But she seemed far more upset about the presence of a Jew.

The Innocents is beautifully shot by Caroline Champetier, giving us a sense of extreme austerity–not only the willful austerity of the nuns, but also of the peasants who have been put through war and occupation.

Mild spoiler below

The film’s happy ending felt forced to me. A revelation (not the magical kind) and a good idea solve everything. Then an epilogue, set three months later, makes it clear just how happy everyone is now.

That ending is a significant flaw, but not enough of one to keep me from recommending The Innocents.

What’s Screening: July 1 – 7

Hong Kong action, Frank Zappa, Harry Dean Stanton, and a talking pig grace Bay Area screens this week.


I’m not sure if I should count the (Not Just) Hong Kong Action Film Series as a festival. Indiefest is calling it a series, but with three of four films screening most Saturdays and Sundays, it feels like five short festivals.

Whatever it is, it will screen at the newly-restored Great Star Theater every weekend this month (including Friday nights). And as the name implies, it will screen action movies, mostly from Hong Kong.

As near as I can tell, the Bay Area will host no other film festivals until the latter half of July.

New films opening

B- Eat That Question, Embarcadero, Shattuck, opens Friday

Early in this documentary on the legendary musician and provocateur, Frank Zappa insists that you can’t possibly know someone from something as artificial as an interview. And that captures the film’s biggest problem; we hear a lot of Zappa’s words, but they’re public words, not private ones. Read my full review.

Promising events

New Jack City, New Parkway, Friday, 9:30

I saw Mario Van Peebles’ crooks and cops thriller on Laserdisc soon after its 1991 theatrical release. I remember being very impressed with it.

Late Spring, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:30

I confess. I have yet to see Ozu’s 1949 classic family drama (and I won’t be able to see it this Saturday, either). For those who care about such things, it’s been newly restored and will screen off a DCP.

Animal House, Roxie, Thursday, 7:00

It’s been decades since I last saw this classic ’70s comedy. I remember liking it a whole lot. I also remember it being the reverse side of American Graffiti; both were set in 1962, but Lucas’ movie was about the end of the 50s, while Animal House looked forward to the birth of the 60s. Rebellious, impolite, and very funny.

The Legend of Drunken Master, Great Star Theater, Friday, 7:00

I saw this Hong Kong Jackie Chan comedy a long time ago, on Laserdisc, when it was called Drunken Master II. Back then it had very bad English subtitles. I liked it a lot. I haven’t seen this English-dubbed version. Part of the (Not Just) Hong Kong Action Film Series.

Recommended revivals

A Babe, New Mission, Tuesday through Thursday

At least among narrative features, Babe is easily the greatest work of vegetarian propaganda in the history of cinema. It’s also a sweet, funny, and charming fairy tale about a pig who wants to become a sheep dog. This Australian import helped audiences and critics recognize and appreciate character actor James Cromwell, and technically broke considerable ground in the category of live-action talking-animal movies. Warning: If you take your young children to this G-rated movie, you may have trouble getting them to eat bacon.

A Chimes at Midnight, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:00

Duty to country conflicts with loyalty to friends in one of the best and most unusual Shakespeare adaptations in the cinema. As adapter and director, Orson Welles combined the best parts of Henry IV Part I (my favorite Shakespeare play), Henry IV Part II (a weak sequel with a great final act), and Merry Wives of Windsor (a reasonably funny comedy) to create a whole greater than its parts–funny, rousing, and ultimately tragic. And if anyone was ever born to play Falstaff, it was Orson Welles. 4K restoration.

A- Blood Simple, New Mission, Friday through Monday

The Coen Brothers’ first film shows a promise of what they’d become. An exceptionally dark, violent, gruesome, and funny noir, it tells a coherent story that is totally incoherent to the characters onscreen. You’ve got an adulterous couple (half of which is Frances McDormand in her first film role), a violently vengeful husband (Dan Hedaya), and a private detective with less morals than your average snake (M. Emmet Walsh). 4K restoration.

A- Paris, Texas, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 7:00

Harry Dean Stanton gives a masterful, understated performance as an amnesiac who walks out of the desert and back into the lives of his family. Missing for years, he’s taken in by his brother’s family, which now includes his own son. As the man’s memory slowly returns, he becomes obsessed with earning his son’s love again, and finding out, not the mystery of his own disappearance, but that of his wife’s. Wenders’ first American film. Part of the series, Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road. . 4K restoration.

B+ Shanghai Noon, Great Star Theater, Sunday, 3:00

Jackie Chan and a not-yet-famous Owen Wilson star in this outrageous sendup on the Western. As a Chinese Imperial Guard on a mission to Nevada to rescue a princess, Chan gets to play the fish out of water. Wilson plays a would-be train robber who thinks he’s the star of a dime novel. Despite their very different comic styles, the two stars find great chemistry. The sequel, Shanghai Knights, is even better. Another part of the (Not Just) Hong Kong Action Film Series.

Lebowskies (frequently-revived classics)

Frank Zappa doc forces you to Eat That Question

B- Documentary

Directed by Thorsten Schütte

Early in this documentary on the legendary musician and provocateur, Frank Zappa insists that you can’t possibly know someone from an interview. It’s artificial; it’s unpleasant; it’s only two steps away from the Inquisition.

And that captures the film’s biggest problem. We hear a lot of Zappa’s words, but they’re public words. We don’t hear his private words, as we did in the Marlon Brando doc, Listen to Me Marlon. Nor do we hear from the people who knew and loved him. Fortunately, Zappa always made an interesting interview subject–blunt, opinionated, impossible to pin down, and often obscene. But still, this film never lets us see what made him tick.

Frank Zappa hit the cultural radar as the 1960s became what we think of as The Sixties (although there’s one TV clip with Steve Allen that appears to be from the 50s). With his long hair, his big mustache, and his vocabulary spiked with words that polite people didn’t say in those days, he seems to be the ultimate hippy–although he despised that word and preferred to be called a freak. He talked about artistic integrity and criticized American materialism. But he didn’t do or approve of drugs (other than tobacco–you rarely see him without a cigarette), and his tunes were often too complex and sophisticated to dance to. He also composed classical music.

Director Thorsten Schütte didn’t shoot new footage for Eat that Question, and if he interviewed anyone for this movie, it didn’t make the final cut. The film lacks a narration. Almost the entire runtime is made up of archival footage of Zappa performing or giving interviews. The rest is Zappa rehearsing, Zappa making TV appearances, and Zappa testifying before Congress attacking censorship. The entire film is pillarboxed in the pre-HDTV 4×3 aspect ratio in which all of these performances and interviews were shot.

Fortunately, the film has a good deal of concert footage–something that many recent music documentaries lack. Aside from the enjoyment of the music, these scenes show us how closely he controlled his band, The Mothers of Invention. Long before Bruce Springsteen became famous, Zappa was very much The Boss.

Zappa died of prostate cancer in 1993, less than three weeks before his 53rd birthday. At that point in his life, he was concentrating on classical music– selling out concert halls in Europe while Americans thought of him as a has-been ’60s rocker.

Frank Zappa deserves an excellent documentary. Here, he gets a merely good one.

3 Views of America: What I saw in theaters this weekend

I saw three movies in theaters this weekend.

Free State of Jones at the Elmwood

Being a history buff, and particularly one interested in the Civil War and reconstruction, I couldn’t help rushing out to see Gary Ross’ Free State of Jones. I caught it at the Elmwood.

Matthew McConaughey stars as an actual historical figure, Newton Knight, a Confederate Army deserter who led a band of escaped slaves and other discontents. They fought the Confederacy and successfully held considerable land. After the war, he supported reconstruction and tried to help the freedmen gain their rightful place in society.

It’s an interesting piece of history, and one that Americans should know something about. What’s more, it makes for an exciting movie. (I don’t know to what degree the movie is historically accurate. I suspect not much.) It can’t help being something of a white savior movie, but that flaw really couldn’t be avoided in a story that really needed to be told.

I give it a B.

I’ve been to the Elmwood many times, but always for something showing in the theater’s big, downstairs auditorium. This time, Jones played in one of the two small, upstairs auditoriums. It was horrible. The front row was way too far back, and there was no way to get close enough to the screen.

Even worse, a low wall in front of the front row was much too close for comfort. I had to tuck my legs under the seat. My back was sore at the end of the movie. Some low chairs, or even bing bang chairs, in the front would help.

Next time something I want to see is at the Elmwood, I’ll make sure it’s screening downstairs before I go.

Scarlet Letter at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum

Sunday was the last day of the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, and the 1926 version of The Scarlet Letter was the final movie of the day. I introduced the film, explaining how star Lillian Gish pushed to get the film made despite censorship issues.

In case you don’t remember reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel in High School, it’s set in 17th century Puritan Massachusetts. Hester Prynne, whose husband disappeared years ago, has a baby out of wedlock and suffers from religious intolerance.

The film, which is very much the MGM version, emphasizes the romance between Hester and her lover, the church minister Arthur Dimmesdale. But unlike the universally reviled Demi Moore version, MGM kept the tragic ending. It’s a powerful story, well-told. I give it an A-.

The 16mm print screened was washed out and fuzzy. As I have never seen a good print of this film; I suspect that nothing better is available.

Bruce Loeb did a wonderful job on piano. His music enhanced the emotions onscreen and deepened the story.

The Lusty Men at the Pacific Film Archive

Nicholas Ray examines masculinity in this modern western drama set in the world of the rodeo. The lusty men of the title are irresponsible, bad with money, and courageous to the point of stupidity. The women who love them suffer for it.

The Lusty Men is not, as I had assumed, about a love triangle. At least not in the traditional sense. Yes, it’s about two men and one woman, but the men don’t compete for the woman. It’s the wife who must compete against her husband’s new bromance.

Robert Mitchum stars as Jeff McCloud, a former star of the rodeo circuit with one too many injuries. He latches onto the happily-married Wes and Louise (Arthur Kennedy and Susan Hayward). Wes is a cowhand, working for someone else, and badly wanting enough to buy his own place. The rodeo promises quick, easy, yet dangerous cash, and Jeff offers to mender him. Wes eagerly jumps into the world of constant travel, heavy drinking, poker, bar fights, and the adrenaline rush of riding a wild horse or (much worse) bull. Louise is pulled into it far more reluctantly.

The rodeo industry clearly approved of this film’s production–although I can’t help wondering if they had read the script. The film contains a good deal of actual rodeo footage. Much of this footage, accompanied by on- and off-screen announcers, celebrate the real cowboys on the real horses and bulls we’re looking at. One problem: This real-live footage didn’t match well with the footage shot for the film. It was grainier and slightly out of focus.

I give The Lusty Men an A-.

The PFA screened a brand-new 35mm print (I’m delighted to know that Warner Brothers is still making them). For the most part, it was beautiful, and did service to Lee Garmes’ moody black and white photography. The occasional scratches were, I assume, from the source material.


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