Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Death of a Frog in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Horror in
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974)
by Annie Dillard

With the pounce of a bloody tomcat, violence is foreshadowed in the first two paragraphs of Annie Dillard’s nonfiction narrative Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  It’s a classic horror novel opening.  Then Dillard cleverly lulls the reader back into complacency with a pastoral description of a morning stroll down the path to the creek.  Janet Leigh’s heading toward the shower—what could possibly go wrong?

Dillard sits by the flowing creek and in the last sentence of the twelfth paragraph, she returns to Subject A:

“I’m drawn to this spot.  I come to it as an oracle;  I return to it as a man years later will seek out the battlefield where he lost a leg or an arm.”

That’s the transition.  She’s about to unleash the horror.

Some critics compare Pilgrim at Tinker Creek with Thoreau’s Walden, but it reminds me more of Cormac McCarthy’s gore-splattered horror/western Blood Meridian.  McCarthy works out his fixations on the macrocosm of the parched deserts of the American west.  Annie Dillard works with the same themes (a quest for meaning against a backdrop of existential futility) by focusing on the microcosm of life in her Virginia backyard.

When Dillard spies a small frog, it’s like that moment in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet where the camera plunges below the manicured lawns.  The sense of order disintegrates.  A seemingly alien world comes into view.

In paragraphs 13 through 17, Dillard observes—and then broods upon—the annihilation of the frog.  Twenty years after reading these paragraphs for the first time, I’m still mesmerized by the passage.  To proceed with this SPOILER, Dillard watches a frog being sucked dry by a giant water bug:

“And just as I looked at him (the frog), he slowly crumpled and began to sag.  The spirit vanished from his eyes as if snuffed.  His skin emptied and drooped;  his very skull seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent.  He was shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football.  I watched the taut, glistening skin on his shoulders ruck, and rumple, and fall.  Soon, part of his skin, formless as a pricked balloon, lay in floating folds like bright scum on top of the water...”

For the rest of the book, Dillard struggles to comprehend a theology capable of encompassing the annihilation of frogs.  If she doesn’t entirely succeed in this quest, her effort is as noble a failure as Herman Melville’s to fully understand the nature of the white whale.  At best, Job-like, we glimpse God’s backside as he departs.  In Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy never figures it out either.  These are the themes that you wrestle with till sunrise, leaving you broken and still unsatisfied.

But this is the world we live in, closely observed.  If horror isn’t acknowledged as a neighbor of theology, then the theology is cheap.  The creek is out back;  death waits there.  The frog’s eyes are drained of some undefinable spark, horrific as a transformation in the Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

“I never knew fear until I kissed Becky.”
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Like Melville, Dillard assumes the existence of God.  And, like Melville, she is determined to reconcile the Creator with the creation.  The notion of a fallen world does not enter into her equation.  She accepts the world as is and holds God responsible for its cruelties, pain, and death, rejecting any theology that does not acknowledge giant water bugs.

Insects are her test case:

“Fish gotta swim birds gotta fly;  insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another.”

Insects creep, crawl, and fly through the book.  A mutilated Polyphemus moth creeps down a driveway “on six furred feet,” a female praying mantis religiously observes her cannibalistic sex rites, a starving clothes moth larva obsessively molts itself into non-existence, a grasshopper exercises its 18 mouthparts, and there’s an amazing description of a bee being eaten by a wasp being eaten by a mantis.  She teases, pokes, and prods at the idea of insects in her search for profundity.

“I ought to keep a giant water bug in an aquarium on my dresser, so I can think about it.  We have brass candlesticks in our houses now;  we ought to display praying mantises in our churches.”

Near the end of his life, Michelangelo painted a self-portrait into his Last Judgment fresco, picturing himself as grotesque folds of flayed skin, his countenance drooping like a kicked tent.  I think the giant water bug caught him at last.  It’s a horrific way to look at life.  There’s no explaining it.

There’s no explaining the death of a frog.

Detail of Michelangelo's Last Judgment.

© 2014 Lee Price

Monday, August 11, 2014

Your Guide to L'Atalante's Cabinet of Curiosities

Eighty years ago,
Jean Vigo completed
L’Atalante (1934) ...

Dita Parlo in L'Atalante (1934).
“It’s a regular curio cabinet!” Juliette (Dita Parlo) exclaims in Jean Vigo’s masterpiece L’Atalante (1934) as she discovers the strange and colorful items exhibited in the cabin of Père Jules (Michel Simon), the barge’s first mate.  Exotic objects hang from the ceiling, are nailed to the walls, decorate the shelves, and rest on the floor.  It really does look like one of those proto-museum displays that were known as “cabinets of curiosity” in centuries past.

Ole Worm's Cabinet of Curiosities,
from Museum Wormianum (1655)
on Wikimedia Commons.

L’Atalante is an examination of a young marriage, focusing upon Juliette and Jean, her barge captain husband, as they journey along the Seine.  While the details of the barge trip are often realistic, the relationships on board the barge (the young couple, the first mate, and a cabin boy) are conveyed more impressionistically.  There are few characters on film quite as charmingly strange as Père Jules, the gruff first mate who appears to have lived a full and fascinating life.  His cabin is our window into his soul.

Père Jules allows Juliette to explore his cabin.  She sees:

The aquatic collection.

Père Jules is a man of the water, with a starfish and octopus nailed to his wall.  Juliette holds a shell to her ear.  And that’s a very impressive sawfish rostrum mounted on Père Jules’ bunk!

The toy collection.
Toys and miniatures are everywhere, from a ceramic dog to a carved alligator.  A miniature skull resides next to a tiny guillotine.  Juliette playfully cranks a music box while Père Jules brings his prize puppet to life.  “I got him in Caracas,” Jules says, “after the revolution in 1890.”

Juliette examines an anatomical specimen.
Juliette curiously picks up a tusk and examines it.  Père Jules identifies it as “an anatomical specimen from a hunting trip.”

Screens, masks, and fans from abroad.
Père Jules has traveled the world.  From Asia, he boasts a large fan and a delicate painted screen.  Masks hang on the walls.  “Nothing but the finest things,” Jules explains.

The art gallery.
Although he shows restraint with Juliette, Père Jules is a carnal man.  His paintings and photographs depict women in various states of undress, including nudes.  The men in his photographs are shirtless, too.

A mysterious jar.
The cabin may be a window into the soul of Père Jules, but we see through the glass darkly.  Mystery remains.  Juliette stumbles upon a jar containing two human hands.  “That’s my friend who died three years ago,” Jules says.  “His hands—all I have left of him.”

Historically, a cabinet of curiosities was intended to showcase the interests of the owner.  These were the things that piqued the imagination of the proprietor.  The links between the disparate objects provided insight into the unique personality of the host.

All that's left of
Lee's Museum.
When I was a boy, I had a museum in my basement.  Lee’s Museum had a chemistry table, a biology section with specimens in formaldehyde, my pet iguana, shells, anatomy models, earth science displays, and lots of rocks and fossils.  It was my cabinet of curiosities.  I don’t have one anymore unless you count my single cabinet of rocks and fossils.

Unlike Père Jules, I think I’ve become less interesting with age.  Unless, maybe, these essays are my new cabinet of curiosities…

© 2014 Lee Price

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Tarzan and His Mate Play House

A summer idyll with
Tarzan and His Mate (1934),
essay 2 of 2

Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan) in
Tarzan and His Mate (1934).
Summer is for climbing trees.

“We have a mansion in every glade,” says Jane in Tarzan and His Mate (1934).  More accurately, the glades are backyards for Tarzan and Jane, while they spend their nights in impromptu mansions assembled high above in the trees.

After her visiting American friends coax Jane into putting on an evening dress, Tarzan sniffs the dress, fingers it curiously, then whisks her off via jungle vine to one of their treetop mansions.

Cedric Gibbons, head of the MGM art department, was a master at designing opulent sets.  On a daily basis, he oversaw the designs for royal chambers, grand cathedrals, and rich plantation homes.  MGM specialized in glitzy displays of wealth.  Tree houses were a bit of a stretch for the Gibbons team, headed by A. Arnold Gillespie, especially when the script stressed their simplicity.  No jerry-rigged imitations of modern conveniences were called for.  Tarzan and his mate shared a cozy little pup tent in the trees, with room for one organic mattress and an animal skin blanket.

The exterior of Tarzan's tree house in Tarzan and His Mate (1934).

Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan) and Tarzan (Johnny Weismuller) in the
interior of the tree house in Tarzan and His Mate (1934).

As one of the last movies to fall into the pre-Code era, Tarzan and His Mate barely scraped past the rapidly increasing pressure from the censors of the Hayes Office in 1934.  Two years later, with the Code operating in full force, MGM required radical changes in the Tarzan jungle, including a thorough overhaul of the Tarzan family’s living arrangement.  In Tarzan Escapes (1936), Cedric Gibbons and his art department provided Tarzan and Jane with a proper tree house mansion with fully-equipped kitchen, a dining room, and guest rooms.

Tarzan's townhouse in the trees in Tarzan Escapes (1934).

The elephant-powered lift and the
chimp-powered fan in
Tarzan Escapes (1936).
The charming rustic enclosure that served as their bedroom/mansion in Tarzan and His Mate is briefly shown but then dismissed by Jane as “a little bird’s nest.”  She brags that their real home is a townhouse.  “We’ve got lots of room.  You’ll be very comfortable.  Tarzan made it and I designed it…  Hot and cold water—all the latest conveniences.”

Granted license by the script to build a tree house mansion, the art department set about creating the world’s ultimate arboreal playground.  It’s a multi-room extravaganza with an elephant-powered lift, a chimp-powered fan, a wood-burning oven, a complex pulley system for drawing water from the creek below, and a rope bridge that links the main building to a treetop gazebo.

While setting a new standard for tree houses, the new arrangement unfortunately (to the great detriment of MGM’s Tarzan series) domesticated Jane.  After taming an ape man and fending off lions in the first two movies, Tarzan Escapes relegated her to the kitchen, in charge of cooking the wildebeest roast.  It was an inevitable slide into middle class life for Tarzan and his mate, but at least they’d always have the glorious memories of their pre-Code courtship, when clothes were scantier, every glade was a mansion, and the tree houses were built for two.

Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan) and Tarzan (Johnny Weismuller) in
Tarzan and His Mate (1934).

© 2014 Lee Price

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Tarzan and His Mate Go Swimming

A summer idyll with
Tarzan and His Mate (1934),
essay 1 of 2

Tarzan (Johnny Weismuller) and
Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan) in Tarzan and His Mate (1934).

Lacking a backyard pool—not to mention a neighborhood jungle lagoon—I typically plunge into escapist movies during the summertime.  Safe in an air-conditioned room, far from pesky mosquitoes and crocodiles, I mentally swing through the trees in a vine-draped paradise.  Today’s feature:  Tarzan and His Mate, MGM’s 1934 sequel to their 1932 hit Tarzan the Ape Man.

Tarzan (Johnny Weismuller) and
Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan) in
Tarzan and His Mate (1934).
While Tarzan stories undeniably cater to several pernicious imperialist and racist fantasies, Tarzan and His Mate (the greatest of the Tarzan movies) rises above its predictable faults with its depiction the happiest of summertime romantic fantasies:

Jane and Tarzan sitting in a tree,

Tarzan and His Mate is a romance for newlyweds.  The censors, apparently satisfied with Tarzan and Jane’s implied common-law marriage, let them have their fun.  They disappear behind the leaves for the night and appear blissfully satisfied the next morning.

Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan) and Tarzan (Johnny Weismuller) in
Tarzan and His Mate (1934).

The movie’s most famous scene, albeit one that was deleted by censors from the movie for most of its existence, follows such a night.  After the lovemaking and the cuddling, the time arrives for the skinny dipping.

Johnny Weismuller
and Josephine McKim,
in Tarzan and His Mate (1934).
Playfully tossed into the water, Jane’s evening gown tears off in Tarzan’s hands, rendering her naked, happy, and free as she swims with her lover in the depths.  Maureen O’Sullivan (Jane) appears in the medium shots and closeups, while Olympic medalist Josephine McKim ably doubles for her in the lengthy underwater shots.  Eminently at home in the water, Johnny Weismuller and McKim swim a flirtatious pas de deux.  It’s jungle play.

For this particular scene, Tarzan absent-mindedly leaves his loincloth on but you get the feeling that it’s purely optional, a concession to having a film crew on hand.  Every night and other day, they’re naked together in paradise.

It’s a fantasy of the young, and a nostalgic dream-memory for the aging:

… remembering that night
September’s coming soon
I’m pining for the moon
And what if there were two
Side by side in orbit around the fairest sun?...

Nightswimming deserves a quiet night.

Lyrics from the
R.E.M. song Nightswimming
by Bill Berry, Peter Buck,
Mike Mills, and Michael Stipe

© 2014 Lee Price

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Ten Great Recordings of Blue Moon

Blue Moon blogging,

from Benny Goodman (1935)
to Julie London (1961)
to She Keeps Bees (2012),

essay 2 of 2

In my first essay on “Blue Moon,” I traced the strange evolution of the story within the song from its original Rodgers and Hart composition through the Elvis Presley dismantling and finally to the Cowboy Junkies rewrite.  I’m including all three highlighted versions here, too, because they really are favorites of mine.

Some obvious versions are missing from this selection simply because they aren’t my favorites.  So you won’t find Mel Torme’s jazzy hit from 1949, The Marcels’ doo-wop classic from 1961, Bobby Vinton’s teen-dream version (best utilized as the American Werewolf in London centerpiece), or The Mavericks smooth country reupholstering of the Elvis interpretation.  All were big hits and remain easily accessible, via YouTube and other channels.

Finally, I’ve left off some dazzling instrumental jazz interpretations largely because I’ve decided to maintain a focus on the interpretation of Lorenz Hart’s lyrics.

The order is chronological, with two bonus tracks at the end:

Benny Goodman in 1935:  There was a lot of “Blue Moon” activity in the mid-1930s, with different versions battling for chart supremacy.  Glen Gray and his Casa Loma Orchestra sold best, with Benny Goodman’s arrangement a close second.  I’ll take Goodman for the unaffected vocal by Helen Ward and the closing trombone solo by Jack Lacey.

Billie Holiday in 1952:  Lady Day deserved the love she sang about so playfully here.  It’s an unusually ironic take on the song, with Holiday gently kidding the very notion of love at first sight.  But she’ll enjoy the moment just fine while it lasts.

Jo Stafford in 1952:  Stafford is such a justifiably self-confident singer that she loses a little of the vulnerability inherent in the lyric.  Nevertheless, this is pitch-perfect and a marvel of subtle phrasing.  Lou McGarity’s trombone perfectly complements Stafford’s high style.

Elvis Presley in 1954:  As I posted in the first essay, I love the still-teenage Elvis hitting those spooky high notes.  His wordless improvisation fundamentally changes the song, and brilliantly so.

Ella Fitzgerald in 1956:  In the 1950s, Ella Fitzgerald set about reinterpreting the great pop standards and that included the American songbook of Rodgers and Hart.  She plays it absolutely straight, delivering what may be the most romantic interpretation of them all.

Julie London in 1961:  London delivers a sly understated and sexy “Blue Moon,” as she knowingly trades off with a slinky guitar riff.  It’s pure 60s and irresistible.

Bobby Bland in 1962:  Straying far afield from his traditional swaggering blues attacks, Bobby Bland and his ace arranger Joe Scott cleverly adapted “Blue Moon” for a funky horns-dominated party atmosphere.

Cowboy Junkies in 1987:  While “Blue Moon Revisited (Song for Elvis)” is technically a new song—a wrap-around elaboration of the Presley “Blue Moon”—I’m choosing to include it here as an authentic extension of the original.  I stand by my contention, asserted in the previous essay, that the new lyric emerges naturally from the Rodgers’ melody.

My Morning Jacket in 2002:  I wasn’t expecting this!  Lead singer Jim James takes the Elvis falsetto addition and completely re-imagines it—a new melodic twist that works with the original bridge and closing verse that Elvis had abandoned.  Very cool.

YouTube video of “Blue Moon” by She Keeps Bees.
She Keeps Bees website, with link to the single.

She Keeps Bees in 2012:  There’s no nostalgia in Jessica Larrabee’s vocal, just a smart, hoarse, and spare late-night exploration of love in the 21st century.  “Blue Moon” still matters.


Shirley Ross in 1934:  From Manhattan Melodrama (1934), Shirley Ross sings the song “The Bad In Every Man,” Lorenz Hart’s second attempt at putting lyrics to Richard Rodgers’ “Blue Moon” melody.  His fourth try would finally yield the standard “Blue Moon.”

Harpo Marx in 1939:  Although Groucho might urge you to move on (“I’ve got to stay here, but there’s no reason why you folks shouldn’t go out into the lobby until this thing blows over”), here’s Harpo Marx playing “Blue Moon” on his harp in At the Circus (1939).

© 2014 Lee Price

Monday, July 21, 2014

Blue Moon, You Saw Me Standing Alone

Blue Moon blogging,

from Rogers and Hart (1934)
to Elvis (1954)
to the Cowboy Junkies (1987),

essay 1 of 2

Let’s consider the song “Blue Moon” as a work in progress:

Version 1:  Rodgers and Hart in 1934

Eighty years ago, composer Richard Rodgers nailed the melody of “Blue Moon” first time out.  He tossed it off, genius-style.

Richard Rodgers, seated, and Lorenz Hart.
From Wikimedia Commons.
Lorenz Hart, a genius in a different vein, struggled with lyrics to fit the tune.  His first three efforts were clever but not magical.  The whole package didn’t click.  On his fourth try, Hart uncharacteristically delivered a nearly straight love song.  He couldn’t resist some shades of irony from entering—it was his natural default—but the new words described a formulaic situation (boy meets girl, love-at-first-sight) in an openly sentimental way.

This was the version of “Blue Moon” that became a beloved standard.  The song opens from the perspective of a lonely guy, with the initial emphasis falling on the “blue,” or sad, nature of the moon.  But blue moon riffs on the idea of a rare moment as well, and the classic once-in-a-lifetime moment occurs on the song’s bridge:

And then there suddenly appeared before me,
The only one my arms will ever hold
I heard somebody whisper, “Please adore me.”
And when I looked,
The moon had turned to gold.

The last verse revels in the new-found prospect of eternal love:

Blue moon,
Now I’m no longer alone
Without a dream in my heart
Without a love of my own.

That’s about as happy-ever-after as things get in a song.

While this version of “Blue Moon” became hugely popular, I like to think that there has always been a disconnect between music and lyrics.  Rodgers’ original melody hinted at depths that Hart’s lyrics evaded.

Version 2: Elvis Presley in 1954

Memphis, Tennessee:  In the aftermath of their regionally popular recording of “That’s All Right,” a 19-year-old kid named Elvis Presley, producer Sam Phillips of Sun Records, and guitarist Scotty Moore were poking and prodding “Blue Moon,” trying to find an Elvis song in the old standby.  Elvis, Scotty, and bassist Bill Black played “Blue Moon” late into the night and quit unsatisfied.  The recordings went into storage.

Elvis in 1956.
A month later in August 1954, they tried again.  But Phillips remained unenthusiastic about the approach and declined to release the song.  When the major label RCA signed Elvis 18 months later, they took the Sun recordings, too.  Culled from the August 1954 session, “Blue Moon” was released in 1956 on Elvis’ first RCA album, the classic Elvis Presley

Elvis’ version never gets past the first half of the Rodgers and Hart song.  He sings the first two verses and then repeats them.  This means he never gets to the bridge or the third verse, where the lovers meet.  Without the love-at-first-sight climax, all that’s left is the yearning for love.  Happiness is replaced by melancholia.

And melancholia is Presley’s gift to the Rodgers and Hart song, with Elvis punctuating the melody with a falsetto wail that I think is heartbreaking but my daughter finds creepy.  In either case, it represents a radical reinterpretation that locates a sadness in the Rodgers tune that never found voice in Hart’s lyrics.

Version 3:  The Cowboy Junkies in 1987

In 1987, a Canadian indie rock band called the Cowboy Junkies refashioned the stripped-down Elvis version of “Blue Moon,” adding a framing story to explain the sorrow.  They called it “Blue Moon Revisited (Song for Elvis)” and it can be found on their 1988 album The Trinity Sessions.

Margo Timmins, lead singer of the
Cowboy Junkies.
The Elvis “Blue Moon” was an odd hybrid of country and blues, taking things in a different direction than the rockabilly of the early Elvis hits.  This was an idiom that the Cowboy Junkies felt comfortable exploring.  From the outset, their music was low-key, thoughtful, and unabashedly pessimistic.  For their second album, they rented the Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto for a day, gathered around a single microphone and played their music.

The implied loss in the Elvis version finally becomes explicit in “Blue Moon Revisited.”  Elvis’ eerie falsetto wailing becomes linked to the death of a lover:

You see I was afraid
To let my baby stray
I kept him too tightly by my side
And then one sad day he went away and he died.

Reference Sources

Rodgers and Hart by Samuel Marx and Jan Clayton
Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick

© 2014 Lee Price

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Portrait of the Artist as a Hoochie Coochie Dancer

Wagon Master blogging
essay 6 of 6

John Ford IS Denver

Joanne Dru as Denver in Wagon Master (1950).

John Ford, circa 1946, posing in front
of his portrait and Oscar.
Photo from Los Angeles Daily News,
posted on Wikimedia Commons.
John Ford is at the center of Wagon Master (1950), and he’s hidden in plain sight.  A portrait of the secret John Ford is there for all to see.  It’s my contention that the character that Ford most deeply identified with—and into whom he slyly placed his personal strategies for getting by in the world—is Denver, the hoochie coochie performer played by Joanne Dru.

No wonder the old fox often cited Wagon Master as his personal favorite film!

I’m basing the following analysis on three personality characteristics shared by Ford and Denver, as well as the way that Denver’s personality is expressed in two scenes.  The second and third of the personality characteristics are very minor and aren’t needed to buttress my argument;  the first personality characteristic is the important one.  The two scenes that I’ll discuss are among the most rigorously planned, composed, and executed in the Ford canon.

But some preliminary notes first:  There is absolutely no need to claim that a director identifies with any single character in his movie.  I doubt it happens often.  I don’t go around looking for clandestine portraits of the author hidden in films.  Finding this one was a complete surprise.

And I also want to place Denver’s sexuality on the back burner for much of this analysis, as well.  Yes, she is one of the most delightfully expressive—and unapologetic—sexual characters in a Ford movie, but her character goes much deeper than this.  I think Ford was even more interested in other aspects of her personality.

Denver (Joanne Dru) as the Mormons debate whether to
allow the medicine show to accompany their wagon train.

F.W. Murnau, circa 1920,
from Wikimedia Commons.
John Ford experienced an aesthetic breakthrough in the late 1920s when exposed to the work of filmmaker F.W. Murnau, who first gained acclaim for his work in Germany on movies like Nosferatu (1922), The Last Laugh (1924), and Faust (1926).  The Fox studio where Ford worked brought Murnau to Hollywood, and offered him boundless resources to make a Hollywood film in the style of his European achievements.  All the directors at the studio watched closely as Murnau set to work making Sunrise (1927), and Murnau’s methods began to inform their own work.  In his Ford biography Print the Legend, Scott Eyman quotes film historian William K. Everson:  “Fox’s directors, sincerely in awe of Murnau, literally made their films in his image as a kind of homage to him.”

For the first time, Ford felt free to openly express his artistic side.  In movies like Four Sons (1928) and Hangman’s House (1928), he adopted Murnau’s elaborate tracking shots, chiaroscuro lighting effects, prolonged closeups, and impressionistic dissolves.  He realized that Murnau employed this broad slate of artistic tools in a bold endeavor to visually depict mental states on film.

Ford’s most Murnau-influenced movies in the late 1920s and early 30s were both praised and criticized for their extreme artiness (in time—and partially due to Ford’s own vigorous promotion of a non-nonsense persona—the nature of these early works were largely forgotten).  As Ford moved into his mature period, with movies like Stagecoach (1939), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), and How Green Was My Valley (1941), he learned to integrate the Murnau effects that he still loved more seamlessly into his storytelling.  They were still there, but carefully reserved for particular emphasis.  He used them with restraint to accentuate the most special moments within his movies.

Joanne Dru as Denver.
In Wagon Master, these moments center on Denver.

The sentimental core:  John Ford did everything possible to conceal his artistic and sentimental core personality.  And, to a great extent, he succeeded.  He did this for reasons of personal insecurity, coupled with his obsessive need to maintain unflinching loyalty from his crews and broad respect within the industry.

In his book Women in the Films of John Ford, David Meuel writes about how this surface image of Ford was, in reality, an artful act of camouflage:

“… there’s Ford himself, who consciously cultivated a tough-guy, man’s man image in order—according to many counts—to mask his extraordinarily sensitive nature.  Always insecure about not appearing strong and in total control among his peers, he may have been tentative about touting his ongoing interest in women’s characters and issues that were important to them.  For a man of his time, it may have seemed unmanly.”

Ford biographer Scott Eyman recounts a particularly revealing anecdote in Print the Legend about the conflict between the director’s outward personality and his inward sensitivity:

“Frank Baker remembered Ford being accosted outside his office by an old actor from the Universal days whose wife needed an operation.  He asked Ford for $200.  Ford stared, then backed away, then launched himself at the actor, knocking him down.  ‘How dare you come here like this?’ he screamed.  ‘Who do you think you are to talk to me this way?’

“Baker witnessed this exchange, and also witnessed Ford’s business manager Fred Totman coming out of the office door with a check for $1,000.  Totman ordered Ford’s chauffeur to drive the man home, where an ambulance transported the woman and her husband to San Francisco for the operation.

“Baker told the story to Frank (Francis) Ford, who was amazed.  ‘I’ve been trying to figure Jack since the day he was born,’ Frank told Baker.  ‘This is the key.  Any moment, if that old actor had kept talking, people would have realized what a softy Jack is.  He couldn’t have stood that sad story without breaking down.  He’s built this whole legend of toughness around himself to protect his softness.’”

In Wagon Master, Denver is the character who has intentionally constructed a tough outward persona to conceal her inward sensitivity.  She does not share her thoughts with the world.  Ford expresses Denver’s internal world purely through visual means because her dialogue must remain singularly tough.

Denver in Wagon Master.
She tells her admirer Travis Blue (Ben Johnson):  “Look, you don’t have to protect me…  And I don’t need any sympathy either.  I’ve done nothing I need be ashamed of no matter what you and your friends think.”

When her fellow medicine-show traveler Fleuretty Phyffe (Ruth Clifford) notes that Travis seems to like her, Denver responds, “That rube…”

And when Travis finally tells her that he’d like to continue to see her, she says, “Thanks.  Don’t bank on it.  We move around.  In a medicine show, you have to (in order) to keep healthy.”  Then Travis proposes marriage, and she simply responds, “Goodbye, fella.”

That’s the way Denver talks—that’s the external Denver.  She never says anything warm or pleasant.  It’s all taunts, teases, and bluster.  And this leaves Ford having to fall back on his old Murnau strategies to reveal the internal Denver, the woman who’s striving to build a legend of toughness to protect her softness (to borrow that phrase from Frank Ford).  John Ford first attempts to communicate Denver’s inner state in the shot that directly follows the bathwater scene where Travis informs her that she’s not to waste water and she charmingly flirts in response.  

Denver needs time to think, barely
acknowledging the teasing of her friend.
Denver steps around the wagon, entering the frame in a medium shot.  The camera slightly tilts up as she walks forward and leans against a post.  Dru’s performance conveys a private moment as she tries to regain her composure—her carefully constructed loner attitude.  Fleuretty enters the frame, comments to Denver that she has an admirer, and passes out of the frame.  Then Denver steps closer to the camera, into closeup now, the camera panning slightly to keep her centered in the frame.  She relaxes against the wagon, her arms folded defensively, and there’s a privileged moment of silence—a time for the viewer to contemplate a character in thought.  Her one line, “That rube…,” matches her folded arms.  She’s protecting herself from her feelings.  But the camera continues to observe her after the line as she returns to silent thought, with the scene ending with a slow dissolve that returns us to a far shot of the wagon trains on their unfolding journey.

The scene continues: A privileged moment for Denver.

Denver’s other key scene is the one where Travis goes “a-courtin’” and tentatively proposes marriage to her.  Ford reserves his masterful use of backward tracking shots for important scenes like this.  The actors take their time with the dialogue, each comfortable with a rhythm of slow delivery and frequent silences.  When Denver realizes what Travis is saying, she steps forward, her bonnet shielding her face from Travis so he can’t see her very out-of-character smile.  Then she composes herself, turns back to him, and says goodbye.  That’s when the scene explodes.

Ford cuts from a medium shot to a more distant shot that initially includes the horse Steel, Travis, and Denver, who is in the center of the frame.  Denver lifts her skirt and runs from him, the camera reverse tracking and panning to keep her at center.  She runs and runs and the camera stays on her.  When she stumbles, the camera (still tracking) tilts downward to keep our attention fixed on her.  And she gets up, glances tentatively back, then resolves herself and runs again, her head held high as she tries to revert back to character.

Denver runs, falls, and runs again.

Cut back to Travis, and then a far shot from his perspective as Denver catches up with her wagon.  Travis mounts his horse and rides away.  Then comes the last major shot of the sequence:

The image of Travis riding away dissolves to Denver sitting in the open rear of the medicine show wagon, smoking a cigarette.  As David Meuel observes in Women in the Films of John Ford, it’s an “almost post-coital pose” (coming, I might add, after the almost-orgasmic moment of her fall).  The last time the viewer saw her with a cigarette was in her introductory scene, where Travis had lit a cigarette for her and she had choked on it.  Now she’s perfectly calm, contentedly smiling to herself.  The camera almost imperceptibly moves closer, allowing us to enjoy the privilege of watching a woman alone, thinking.

Dissolve to Denver in the back of the wagon, smoking and thinking.

No other character in Wagon Master enjoys private moments like this, with the camera silently observing and moving ever closer, forcing the viewer to consider a woman’s perspective.  It’s the only way for Ford to reveal Denver’s dual personality.  And Ford deeply understands her personality because it is so close to his own.

Denver’s Profession:  Most of the critical literature on Wagon Master refers to Denver as a prostitute.  This isn’t unreasonable.  Certainly, showgirls are presented as prostitutes in numerous Hollywood westerns.  And, within Ford’s own body of work, Denver echoes the presentation of the prostitute Dallas (an overt prostitute) in the classic Stagecoach.

Denver (Joanne Dru) with the other members
of the traveling medicine show, played by
Ruth Clifford and Alan Mowbray.
But Wagon Master doesn’t emphasize Denver as a prostitute.  It depicts her as an entertainer, a core part of a stock company that travels on the frontier, putting on shows.  The general critical assumption is that her line, “I’ve done nothing I need be ashamed of no matter what you and your friends think,” refers to sexual activity but in this context it could also refer to her discomfort with her role as a traveling entertainer.

This reminds me of John Ford’s ongoing belittling of his chosen profession.  He and his old filmmaking mentor Harry Carey (Sr.) would get together at Carey’s ranch and discuss anything but the movies.  Harry Carey, Jr. recalls in his memoir Company of Heroes that his father “didn’t give a damn about the movies,” and Ford seems to have picked up on this as an appropriate attitude to express to the world.

Like Ford, Denver is similarly torn about her profession.  She acts like she doesn’t give a damn about it in public, but her actions continually show that she is 100% committed to the troupe she works with.

Denver, drunk, in her first scene.
Denver on a Bender:  While it may not have been entirely of her own choosing (the famished troupe has turned to drinking its own highly-alcoholic elixir), Denver is introduced to the film at the tail-end of a major bender.  She’s sloshy drunk.  But then she sobers up and doesn’t take another drink for the duration of the picture.  When she’s sober, she’s entirely professional.

Anyone who’s read about John Ford will recognize the pattern of his binge drinking, usually restricted to the down periods between movies.  When he was on the job, he kept alcohol at a distance.  It’s a very minor point in common between Ford and Denver, but yet another interesting similarity between the two.

Finally, a Difference Between the Two:  This is the movies after all, so for Denver, everything ends happily.

A happy ending for Travis and Denver.

Wagons West

Stan Jones and the Sons of the Pioneers never released a record of their songs for Wagon Master.  I’m not sure if anyone’s even published the lyrics before.  For this blog series, I’ve listened closely to the movie’s songs and attempted to capture the lyrics as accurately as possible.  It’s really increased my appreciation of Stan Jones as a composer and lyricist.

“Wagons West,” the first song in Wagon Master, sets the scene, while also framing the movie as an exercise in nostalgia.  It isn’t written as a faux-contemporary folk song of the 1850s but as a 1950 song looking back a century into the past.

A hundred years have come and gone since 1849
But the ghostly wagons rolling west
Are ever brought to mind
Their old rocking creakin’ wheels
Were heard from shore to shore
And always in the hearts of men
It lives forevermore:

Rollin’!  Rollin’!  Rollin’! Rollin’!  (repeat)

Wagons west are rolling
Out where winds are blowing
’cross rivers and plains
Through sand and through rain
Goes the mighty wagon train.

Special thanks to Paula Vitaris who manages the Ben Johnson Fan Page for generously sharing screen captures and providing valuable background information and insight! 

Reference Sources
Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford by Scott Eyman
About John Ford by Lindsay Anderson
John Ford: The Man and His Films by Ted Gallagher
The Nicest Fella: The Life of Ben Johnson by Richard D. Jensen
Company of Heroes: My Life as an Actor in the John Ford Stock Company by Harry Carey Jr.
Lest We Forget: The John Ford Stock Company by Bill Levy
Women in the Films of John Ford by David Meuel
Music in the Western: Notes from the Frontier, edited by Kathryn Kalinak (essay “John Ford, Walt Disney, and Sons of the Pioneers” by Ross Care)
When Hollywood Came to Town:  A History of Movie Making in Utah by James D’Arc
Wagon Master Warner Home Video DVD commentary by Harry Carey Jr. and Peter Bogdanovich

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© 2014 Lee Price