Sunday, May 22, 2011

Henry Fonda joins the circus

It's generally said that Henry Fonda didn't particularly like many of the movies that Darryl F. Zanuck put him in when he was a contract player at Fox. To be fair to Zanuck, the movies aren't particularly bad films, but in Fonda's defense, the movies aren't particularly substantial, the big roles generally going to Tyrone Power or Don Ameche. A good example of the light entertainment in which Fonda was repeatedly cast is Chad Hanna, airing tomorrow morning at 9:30 AM on the Fox Movie Channel.

Fonda plays the title character, who starts the movie as a stable hand for an inn in central New York state in the 1840s. The circus comes to town, and Chad wants to get closer to lovely bareback rider Albany Yates (Dorothy Lamour). But he needs money for an entrance ticket, and the only way to do that is to get the $5 reward a local slave tracker is offering for information about a runaway slave. Chad takes the money but lets the slave know what's about to happen, allowing the slave to escape. This means that the tracker is going to go after Chad, and Chad has to make a quick getaway by joining the circus.

Chad quickly becomes a valued employee of the circus, run by the Huguenines (Guy Kibbee and Jane Darwell). In fact, when Mr. Huguenine falls ill, he askes Chad to take over the role of ringmaster for a time. The circus isn't an easy life, however, as there are lots of travelling circuses which have a cutthroat attitude toward each other, which happens when a rival lures away Albany with a bigger payday. Fortunately, there's another woman to take over the bareback job: The slave tracker's daughter Caroline (played by Linda Darnell) had also run away when he blamed her for giving Chad the $5, and she ran off to escape her father's abusive nature. Despite the fact that Chad was really in love with Albany, he pretends to be in love with Caroline, eventually marrying her. Still circus life isn't so easy, as there are problems with the lion falling ill, and the rivals threatening to get an elephant, which would be a much bigger attraction than anything the Huguenines could get. Chad is able to come up with a plan that just might save the day....

By the end of Chad Hanna, you can see why Fonda didn't care too much for his work at Fox. It's a movie that kind of goes all over the place, leaving plot threads completely unravelled: you'd think the slave tracker would come back for his daughter and Chad, but he just disappears, for example. The love dilemma for Chad ends rather abruptly, too, and Lamour is underused in the second half of the film. And to be honest, the whole thing is a rather frivolous movie. But one shouldn't treat Chad Hanna too harshly. It's nice entertainment for one, and supporting actors -- especially Kibbee, but also fellow circus worker John Carradine -- do a good job. There's also love Technicolor photography. Fox seemed to take up Technicolor in earnest more quickly than the other studios, and Technicolor serves a period piece like this well.

Perhaps sometime Fox will release a box set of Fonda's movies at the studio, and at that point, Chad Hanna will get a DVD release. Until then, you'll have to watch a Fox Movie Channel showing.

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