Thursday, February 21, 2008

Out west with Procter and Gamble

Duel in the Sun aired this past Tuesday on TCM, so I finally took the opportunity to watch it. Producer David O. Selznick was looking to make a movie that could rival the grandeur of Gone with the Wind, and bought the rights this lurid Texas-set western as that attempt. But I can't help but think about my freshman college roomate, who hailed from just outside Nome, Alaska. One of the things Alaskans liked to say was "Cut Alaska in two and make Texas the third biggest state." Although such sentiments will probably rankle our readers from the Lone Star State, I believe that they perfectly fit the bombast that is Duel in the Sun.

The plot fits right in with something you'd see on any good soap opera, and being set in Texas, would fit right in with the Ewings at Southfork ranch (except that in Duel in the Sun), we don't get anybody stepping out of the shower and telling us that what happened in the past 45 minutes was all just a bad dream). We start off with Jennifer Jones (the actress, not the trashy 1990s talkshow host, although the latter would have been at home with this story) as mestiza Pearl Chavez in 1880s Texas whose father (Herbert Marshall, in a "what am I doing here" role) is sent to the gallows for killing his wife and her lover. So, Pearl is sent to west Texas to work on the "million-acre" ranch of cattle baron Lionel Barrymore and his wife, Lillian Gish. They have two sons: the impossibly virtuous Joseph Cotten, and the caricature of evil, Gregory Peck. Needless to say, both fall in love with Pearl, but the town is only big enough for one of them....

The story itself isn't that bad: noirs are filled with love triangles, and even some westerns had this tireless plot device. (For a good love triangle set out west, try Rachel and the Stranger, or perhaps River of No Return.) But this one is presented in an unbelievably over-the-top style: Orson Welles with his dulcet tones provides the opening narration, and he's only the first member of the star-after-star-after-star casting system this movie uses. In addition the those mentioned above, there's Walter Huston as a moralizer trying to get Pearl to stop sinning -- a role that reminded me of Huston's Rain where he tried to reform Joan Crawford; as in Rain I was hoping that Huston would commit suicide here, too. Also, Charles Bickford shows up as another of Pearl's suitors. Butterfly McQueen is in her usually typecast role as a servant (although in her defense of course, Hollywood didn't give other roles to black women) with her unbelievably irritating voice. And minor character actors showing up include Harry Carey and Otto Kruger.

In addition to the cast, the whole backdrop is overblown. Technicolor was used in an obvious attempt to make Texas look bigger than it is; and the script routinely calls for the characters to ride out into the open spaces for no good reason other than to show those spaces. The final sequence, the "duel in the sun" of the title, is reminiscent of what Erich von Stroheim had done two decades earlier in Greed, but there the ending was good, and not simply unintentionally funny as in Duel in the Sun.

However, if you enjoy westerns, you may want to give Duel in the Sun a chance. It's a fairly shallow movie that allows you to sit back with a bowl of popcorn and your loved ones (at least, the ones who are grown up) and just have a good time without having to think too hard.

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