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Sunday, February 23, 2014

Westward the Women (1951)




John McIntire is Roy E. Whitman, the mayor of a prosperous mining community in California, who notices there's something missing in his small paradise: women. He therefore travels to Chicago to find marriageable women for his lonely men and hires a trail boss, Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor), to lead the wagon trail along the California Trail to the promised land in the West. 

Based on a story by Frank Capra, of all people, this is one of the most brisk and cheerful movies in the wagon train genre, and at the same time one of the most wistful: virtually all characters in it are lost and lonely, longing for a new start in life. There's the single mom, the aging widow of a New England sea captain, the recently widowed Italian immigrant woman, hoping to find a new father for her young son, and the two saloon girls, who quickly change their clothes when they notice that Whitman only accepts 'virtuous' women. Their journey is not only a rite de passage in which the women prove themselves to be worthy of their future husbands, but also a quest for the true adventurous spirit that once brought people to this continent, and now leads them further West because the pioneer spirit is lost in the town of Chicago.

I had seen the movie some thirty years ago, and was afraid it would look hopelessly old-fashioned, and of course there are a few silly jokes with a funny talking Japanese aid and a couple of melodramatic moments, but the script elegantly meanders through the genre clich├ęs, avoiding the worst and most obvious pitfalls. The movie is as enjoyable today as it was back then, funny, exciting and sexy. It glorifies the courage and perseverance of the woman, but never fails to underline the drama and downside of the venture: to restore his authority Taylor is forced to shoot one of the men in cold blood  (after he has raped one of the saloon girls), and several women never reach the promised land because they're killed during the various physical tests they have to endure. Some of the most dramatic moments - an Indian attack, the accidental death of the young Italian boy - are off-stage, but they only seem to be more hard-hitting because of it.

Capra got the idea for the story after he had read a magazine article about South American women making a long and dangerous journey to join a colony of male settlers. Like Buck Wayde in the movie, director Wellman told the female cast the job would be dirty and tiresome; he also gave every one of them a chance to back out in the last minute. They received a three weeks training before shooting started (1). The cast is excellent, with Robert Taylor turning in one of the very best performances of his career and Denise Darcel deliciously cunning and seductive as the French mademoiselle taming him.

Cinematographer William C. Mellor was asked to abstain from filters whenever possible, in order to give the movie a glaring look. Some of the compositions are reminiscent of paintings in the style of heroic-realism, popular in Europe in the first half of the Twentieth Century. The woman are often filmed from below, silhouetted against the sky, as if the underline their greatness and bravery; it's a technique that was also applied by the controversial - but influential - German film maker Leni Riefenstahl (2).  Some of the scenes with the women washing themselves in the river, their skirts strung up, seem inspired by the famous neo-realist movie Riso Amaro (Bitter Rice - 1949, Giuseppe De Santis), which was a great success in both Europe and the US.

1951 - Director: William A. Wellman - Cast: Robert Taylor (Buck Wyatt), Denise Darcel (Fifi), John McIntire (Roy E. Whitman), Renata Vanni (Mrs. Maroni), Beverly Dennis (Rose), Hope Emerson (Patience), Julie Bishop (Laurie), Lenore Lonergan (Maggie), Marilyn Erskine (Jean), Henry Nakamura (Ito), Guido Martufi (Tony Maroni).



Notes:
(2) Riefenstahl is best known for her propaganda movies (Triumph of the Will, Olympia) for the Nazi Party, and for this reason her work was rejected by many commentators, but the aesthetics of her movies are generally considered as outstanding and het photographic techniques as groundbreaking; she experimented with different camera speeds and shooting angles, often with dazzling effects, and is often called the greatest female film maker of the Twentieth Century. Her work was studied by such prominent film makers such as Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, Paul Verhoeven, Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino. 

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