Cowboy (1958)

Cowboy 1958In a legendary career that earned him eight Oscar nominations and two wins, Jack Lemmon did it all. Equally adept at drama and comedy, he bounced back and forth between the two throughout his career. The genre he visited only once? The western. Here’s his lone western, 1958’s Cowboy.

It’s the 1870s and Frank Harris (Lemmon) is working as a clerk at a hotel in Chicago. It’s a dull life, Harris seeking something more. He gets that opportunity when Tom Reese (Glenn Ford) and his cowboys arrive in town after completing a long cattle drive from Mexico. Harris manages to convince Reese to let him on as a partner – he supplies some serious cash – to give him a chance to be a real-life cowboy. Reese is more than wary, even trying to back out of the deal, but ultimately takes the inexperienced Harris along. Reese, Harris and the cowboys head back south to build up another herd, but Harris has no idea of what he’s gotten into, but he’s a quick learner.

The cattle drive is one of those perfect, iconic western storylines, right up there with cavalry vs. Indians, settlers and the gunfighters. It’s a cool jumping off point for this Delmer Daves-directed western that isn’t necessarily hugely remembered. It’s a hot, sunny western that does show the darker, more honest side of being a cowboy. The portrayal of a cowboy is always romantic, idyllic, but the truth couldn’t be further from the truth. It was long hours in the saddle for not much pay and the constant threat of danger from weather, stampedes, Indians and bandits. Fun, huh?

The guts of the movie is the rivalry between Ford’s Reese and Lemmon’s Harris, the two pros carrying the 92-minute movie. We see Reese pushing the men, the focus on getting the cattle to market. It’s a harsh, unpleasant job he has to do. Harris thinks he’s too harsh though, questioning how far is too far. As the drive develops though, the roles begin to switch, Reese seeing maybe he has gone too far and Harris viewing the drive as profit and money alone. It’s a pretty cool back-and-forth that develops. There’s some genuine heat too on the trail, either man seemingly one good push away from pulling a gun. Excellent performances from Ford and Lemmon.

Not a huge supporting cast, but some recognizable faces pop up. Victor Manuel Mendoza is excellent as Paco Mendoza, Reese’s right-hand man. It’s cool (and ahead of its time) to see a Mexican cowboy in such a prominent role. The rest of the cowboys include Brian Donlevy, Dick York (later of Bewitched fame), Richard JaeckelStrother Martin and King Donovan. Donlevy is great as Doc Bender, a former gunhand turned cowboy. York is the ladies man and Jaeckel more of a villainous cowboy. Anna Kashfi plays Maria, Harris’ love interest living in Mexico.

My biggest complaint with ‘Cowboy’ is that at 92-minutes, it just doesn’t accomplish much. It takes quite a while to get going, and then when it reaches the cattle drive, it seems to be in a rush. We build to this big confrontation between Ford and Lemmon, and then it’s wrapped up in a flash, the story ending on an odd comedic note. The finale reminded me a fair bit of Red River, all build-up and then the payoff isn’t worth it. The drive itself feels especially rushed. The action is solid – including a showdown between the cowboys and a Comanche war party – but there’s not enough of it.

A lot of potential that never fully delivers. I still liked ‘Cowboy,’ especially with its Arizona and New Mexico locations and a good musical score from George Duning. I just wish it was a little better. The dark, honest story and its potential is there for the taking. Still, a western with Glenn Ford and Jack Lemmon in memorable leading roles ain’t a bad thing.

Cowboy (1958): ***/****

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Mister Roberts (1955)

mister_roberts_281955_movie_poster29By 1955, Henry Fonda had been away from major film roles for going on 8 years. After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Fonda worked in film for several years before returning to the stage, specifically in a role he would play for 8 years. Naturally, when the film rights were purchased, Fonda wasn’t originally considered. Makes sense, right? Thankfully, the powers that be made the right decision, ultimately casting Fonda in the titular role in 1955’s Mister Roberts.

It’s spring 1945 and Allied forces are pushing Japanese forces back across the Pacific with victory seemingly in reach. Thousands of miles back across the Pacific on a securely head island, Lt. Doug Roberts (Fonda) is the cargo officer on a cargo ship that helps supplies the nearby island and passing ships heading toward the fighting. After 2-plus years on the ship, Roberts feels he’s not doing enough to help the war effort, and he would like nothing more than to serve on a destroyer in the fighting. The ship’s commander, Capt. Morton (James Cagney), knows his value to the ship and its efforts though, so he won’t approve Roberts’ transfer. In the meantime, Roberts continues to keep working hard, all the while working as a buffer, a go-between between the much-maligned crew and the crazy captain.

A huge hit for many years on Broadway with Fonda in the starring role, ‘Roberts’ made the inevitable jump to the big screen with classic results. Impressive considering the production was less than smooth, director John Ford clashing with Fonda and Cagney to epic proportions (Fonda supposedly punched him square in the face) to the point Ford eventually left the production. Mervyn Leroy took over with Broadway director Joshua Logan also helping with reshoots. It’s debatable which director shot what footage — some Ford footage with some broad humor seems to stand out — and at times, the first 45 minutes are a little slow, but the end result is a highly memorable flick that deserves its classic status (or at least its mostly classic status).

You take for granted sometimes how good an actor can be. Henry Fonda was never a flashy actor, always stealing scenes in subtle, underdone fashion. Then, you finish the movie and realize how good he was. His part as Lt. Roberts belongs with his best roles, 12 Angry Men, The Grapes of Wrath, Once Upon a Time in the West, and who knows? It might be his best. Fonda specialized in a long distinguished career at playing the everyman, Joe Normal who’s thrust into an unpleasant situation. As Roberts, it’s dramatic, there is some comedy, and a genuine humanness that plays incredibly sympathetic on the screen. He wasn’t nominated for the Oscar, but he should have been.

Fonda not surprisingly steals the movie, impressive considering the cast around him. Cagney hams it up in a big way (even for him), overdoing it as the narcissistic, egomaniacal Capt. Morton. You need a bad guy though to counter Fonda’s Roberts, and you get it with Cagney. William Powell is perfectly cast as Doc, the ship surgeon who’s good friends with Roberts. Their dialogue-heavy scenes together are a gem, just 2 guys talking, not 2 guys acting. Jack Lemmon won an Oscar for his supporting role as Ensign Pulver, the young officer with some issues who clearly looks up to Roberts and is trying to impress him while dealing with his own shy, nervous, lazy demons.

Because that quartet clearly isn’t enough, the crew of the USS Reluctant (the cargo ship) features Ward Bond as the ship chief, Dowdy, with Ken Curtis, Philip Carey, Nick Adams, Perry Lopez, Robert Roark, Harry Carey Jr. and Patrick Wayne rounding out the cast. Also look for small parts for Martin Milner, Gregory Walcott and Ford favorite Jack Pennick.

The 1950’s were an especially popular time for navy stories, especially World War II navy stories set in the Pacific. ‘Roberts’ would even inspire a sequel, 1964’s Ensign Pulver (not good). This is one of the prettiest, sunniest, most beautifully shot movies of the decade. I can’t recall a single scene that isn’t sun-drenched with cool blue waters in the background. The US Navy aided during filming, and it shows with an authentic military look and feel to the proceedings. Composer Franz Waxman turns in a solid score too, appropriately balancing the comedic and dramatic moments. Give it a listen HERE.

In my latest viewing, I struggled early on in a 121-minute movie. It’s slow — really slow — setting things up. Thankfully, when things up, they do in lightning-quick fashion. After a slow first 45 minutes, ‘Roberts’ hits its groove. It builds and builds, right up into a highly memorable final stretch. This is a movie that’s ready to punch you right in the stomach with a tragic final 15 minutes. It helps save the early portions and ends the movie on a great final scene. Excellent flick — flaws aside — with Fonda in one of his best performances in a long list of best performances.

Mister Roberts (1955): *** 1/2 /****