Thursday, September 03, 2009

A Reminder That DVD Classics Still Exist

Well, they still do. John Ford's Wagon Master is coming out on DVD next week. (Or possibly the week after; it seems like some stores might have it next week.) It's one of Ford's own favorites among his films, and there's no doubt that Wagon Master is one of his best Westerns.

Watch Wagon Master (1950, John Ford) in Drama  |  View More Free Videos Online at

It was passed over for DVD release a few times because it doesn't have any stars in it; the closest thing to a star is Ben Johnson, but really the "star" is Ford's whole stock company, including Johnson, Harry Carey Jr. (who participates in the commentary track with the ubiquitous Peter Bogdanovich), Ward Bond, Jane Darwell, and Alan Mowbray, who get to do their thing without being overshadowed by a star like Wayne or Fonda. If Fort Apache, my own favorite Ford Western, is a movie with almost nothing but stars -- as others have noted, nearly everybody in the film either was a big star (Wayne, Fonda), used to be a star (Shirley Temple, George O'Brien), or was a star in Mexico (Pedro Armendáriz, Miguel Inclán) -- then Wagon Master is the movie that does without stars altogether. I think that may be something Ford especially valued about it, since his other '50s favorite, The Sun Shines Bright, is similarly star-less.

The odd person out in Wagon Master is the female lead, Joanne Dru, since she wasn't precisely a Ford stock player, though she had been in his previous Western, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. One thing that's a bit unusual about her is that she was a Howard Hawks discovery who was then taken up by Ford. They usually had very different tastes in leading women. Hawks used Dru in Red River as part of his usual pattern of finding an unknown actress and making her play the typical Hawks woman (Lauren Bacall, Angie Dickinson). And, also part of his usual pattern, he never did another film with her. Then Ford used her, first as the sort of spunky-but-not-too-independent girl he liked to feature in his Westerns (Vera Miles, Maureen O'Hara), then in Wagon Master as someone a little closer to her Red River character.

None of these are great parts -- her Red River character, unlike the similar characters played by Bacall and Dickinson, is too peripheral to the story to make any impact -- but I've always liked her in all three movies. But they didn't help her career much, because they caused her to be typecast as a Western heroine. In the mid-'50s she tried to change her image with some decidedly non-Western photoshoots, but it didn't get her any better parts, and she didn't look any more comfortable in those photos than she did in gingham gowns

She just seemed a little angry all the time, even when playing the good girl; in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon the first shot of her has her looking like she's going to kill somebody, and she acts that way through the whole movie.

No comments: