Thursday, June 30, 2016

Olivia's a Farmer

The Civil War is over.  John Chandler (Alan Ladd) and his young son David (David Ladd) arrive at the small Illinois town of Aberdeen.  Once a soldier of the South, the widowed father needs help - his son is mute, the result of witnessing his mother's death in a fire.  John is trying to find a doctor - any doctor - who can help his boy regain his ability to speak.   Doctor Enos Davis (Cecil Kellaway) recommends a colleague at the Mayo Clinic, an expert in dealing with traumatic speech loss.  But before the Chandlers can head out, John is arrested after he crosses paths with the local town bully, Jeb Burleigh (Harry Dean Stanton) and his father Harry (Dean Jagger).  Thus begins The Proud Rebel (1958).

Some films don't seem to have become recognizable classics, and The Proud Rebel is one of them.  Our question is "WHY NOT??"  This is an excellent film that carefully treads a thin line between sympathy and mawkishness - a line it never crosses.  In many ways reminiscent of Shane and The Big Country, this is an outstanding film, which emphasizes the need for family.  The talent of the three leads: Olivia de Havilland (as Linnett Moore), Mr. Ladd, Sr. and Mr. Ladd, Jr.  are important reasons, though the excellent script is a prime factor.

Linnett Moore, as portrayed by Ms. de Havilland is a wonderful woman - she is strong, brave, and stubborn, but also kind, sympathetic and loving.  The film is a love story, but it concentrates on the love that blooms between Linnett and young David more than that of John and Linnett.  Certainly, there is a love story for the adults, but it comes from the desire for family and home more than one of passion.  It is a love story of deep commitment and common beliefs.  Nevertheless, it is a love that will withstand the ravages of time.
Alan Ladd plays John as a man still scarred by the death of his wife.  In Linnett he begins to find the cure for his pain, though his almost obsessive quest for a cure for his equally damaged child is a major barrier.  His obsession initially makes him emotionally unavailable; the image he carries of his wife (a photo he immediately unpacks when he moved into Linnett's ranch) seems to act as an emotional spur, reminding him of the need to find a doctor for David.

The film is full of counterpoints. There are the two family units - the caring relationship of Linnette, David and John, set in contrast to the cruelty of three Burleighs.  The Moore farm, with its simple, cozy atmosphere, can be compared to slovenly home of the Burleigh's. The photo of John and his wife that sits at his bedside will later echo a scene of  John posing with Linnett for a similar photo. 

The performance that really stands out in the film is that of David Ladd, who, at the age of 11 gives a genuine portrayal of this child in crisis.  The chemistry between him and his father is impressive, as is that between him and Ms. de Havilland.  After a notable acting career, David became a producer (like his older brother, Alan Jr).  He and Olivia de Havilland have remained friends since the movie; according to an introduction by Robert Osborne, they regularly speak on the phone. This New York Times review is especially complementary (and deservedly so) of David's work in the film.
Alan Ladd is perfect as the tormented father.  Ladd started in film, in a number of uncredited roles, in 1932, and continued being a face in the crowd and in small roles (including a role as a reporter in Citizen Kane), until his breakthrough performance in This Gun for Hire (1942).  Though he had a wonderful speaking voice (he was much more successful in radio during his early career), his height (he was either 5'6" or 5'7", depending upon the source) was a barrier to leading man roles.  His frequent co-star Veronica Lake was tiny (she was 5'1"), and his costar here, Ms. de Havilland was also not very tall (5'3"), but stories exist of Ladd being perched on a box, so he was taller than costars like Sophia Loren (5'9" Boy on a Dolphin).  But limiting discussion of Ladd's height is to ignore his talent.  In films like Shane, The Glass Key, and The Blue Dahlia he is magnificent - with his subdued demeanor and rumbling voice, he seems made for film noir and westerns.  He was married for 22 years to Sue Carol, who also acted as his agent; the marriage produced three children - David, Alan Jr, and Alana.  Ladd battled depression (his mother, herself a victim of depression, ended her own life), attempted suicide in 1962, and died of an accidental overdose (sleeping pills and alcohol.  Ladd suffered from chronic insomnia) in 1964.  Following his death, his final performance in The Carpetbaggers (he played Nevada Smith, a character later revisited by Steve McQueen) was released, to excellent box office.

Filmed in Utah, the scenery (and cinematography by Ted D. McCord) is fantastic (it should be noted that Utah looks nothing like Illinois!).  According to the AFI catalog, Adolph Menjou was to be in the film (probably in the role of  Harry Burleigh, the role ably enacted by Dean Jagger), but a torn ligament forced Menjou to withdraw from the production.  There was one star of the film who got special treatment - that was King, the border collie that portrayed David's pet, Lance.  According to this  TCM article, "King and his two canine stand-ins were deemed so important by the production team that they were given their own hotel room in one of Utah's finest motels right next to Ladd's and de Havilland's quarters." 

We'll end with the introduction of Linnett Moore. Ms. de Havilland is dynamite in the scene.  And let's take this opportunity to wish this amazing actress a happy 100th birthday (with a link to a recent write-up in Vanity Fair of her 1962 autobiography Every Frenchman Has One):

4 comments:

  1. "The Proud Rebel" was the first movie I ever rented from Blockbuster. I had seen it as a youngster, but all that remained at the time were vague memories of the dog. What a delight it was to discover a thrilling and moving western with a forthright and strong female character.

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  2. Wonderful review, I really like this film and feel that the two Ladds and De Havilland were all at their best here. I suppose some credit should go to Curtiz. Regardless, it's a film I'd love to see restored and on blu-ray some day!

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  3. This film was a glorious discovery for me. It's being added to the list of favorite westerns.

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  4. I've always loved this movie.It's restoration debuted at the 2015 TCM Film Festival so maybe there is hope that it will arrive on DVD/Blue Ray soon.

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