Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Duel in the Sun (1946)

Director: King Vidor

It was a film that wished to be greater than Gone with the Wind and pushed the envelope of American cinematic censorship in the 1940s. It would end up being a picture that had to trim down its promiscuous tones. Its scope and cinematic quality brought in good numbers at the box office, but ultimately was not the success the studio had hoped it to be. A western directed by acclaimed filmmaker King Vidor, Duel in the Sun had what it needed to attract audiences, but not the prestige to be an all-time classic. It would leave an impact on a handful of future filmmakers and historians, but as a feature attempting to capture cinematic lightening in a bottle for producer David O. Selznick it simple falls short, while carrying its own lurid, clandestine backstory.

Duel in the Sun is a western of a young lady of half Native American ancestry sent to live with white relatives and becomes involved in a forbidden and destructive romance. Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones) is orphaned when her father, Scott (Herbert Marshall), is executed for killing her mother for having an affair. The still maturing young lady is sent to live with a favorite second cousin of her father’s, Laura Belle (Lillian Gish), who is warm and accepting of her as her father’s daughter. Things are not well as Pearl faces persecution for her mixed race, being half Native American, mostly from Laura’s husband, the elderly, conservative Texas Senator Jackson McCanles (Lionel Barrymore). Pearl’s relationship with their two sons proves to being the most troubling thing for the blossoming lady. Jesse (Joseph Cotten) is kind and gentlemanly while his brother Lewt (Gregory Peck) is a very forward, part lady’s man, part roughen.

Despite her initial attraction for Jesse and distain for Lewt, Pearl finds herself powerless to Lewt’s charms, giving it to his advances, much to her regret. Jesse’s political dissimilarity with his father, as well as broken heart from Pearl’s affair with Lewt, sets him to leave the home and start his own political career in Austin, leaving Pearl and Lewt to carry on their relationship. Lewt’s emotionally abuses Pearl, reneging on promises, even killing man she considered marrying to make him jealous, but she cannot seem to shake these strange feelings for him. Meanwhile, we learn the source of the Senator’s disdain for Pearl stems from his jealousy of her father, Scott, who had romantic relationship with Laura, who passes away of illness before her two sons can arrive home. With Pearl’s clear strong feelings for Jesse, Lewt leads his brother into a duel, leading to him shooting an unarmed Jesse. Enraged, Pearl has a shootout with Lewt, but when the two mortally wound each other their emotions bring them together, dying in each other’s arms.

The film is a long story eventually leading to the plot of a love triangle, concluding with the twist that that two people that should not be together end up, confusing as it may be, showing the greatest love for each other, fight hardest with and for each other love. It is a bit confusing, convoluted with the unlikable characters being the story’s primary romance, and a lackluster conclusion. Story aside, the picture is beautifully shot for the most part, with hints of vast epic quality to mimics Selznick’s prior productions.

The actors feel a bit out of place, with the usually stately Gregory Peck playing the villainous brother, while Joseph Cotten, who had played devious character in the past, here portrays the just and kindly brother. The picture attempts to be something greater, which it just isn’t. Moments of cinematic grandeur by pass through some frames of this film, but ultimately my initial reaction is that Selznick’s eyes were just bigger than his stomach. Despite some great aspects of the movie, its turns out to be a rather longwinded story given a grand budget, falling short of the mark in terms of filmmaking history.

In researching this picture’s history it appears David O. Selznick was hoping Duel in the Sun was his next Gone with the Wind. With this knowledge you can see many parallels in the stylings of the film compared to the 1939 all-time classic. Both are 19th century American period pieces, both have similar shooting styles with lush Technicolor, vast vistas and sets, both have large casts with handfuls of namely actors only appearing for short segments, and both are about love triangles that tend to go the wrong way. What this film lacks is the overwhelming popularity of the source material, as the novel by Niven Busch was far from being the cultural phenomena Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” was.

Along with the before mentioned Gregory Peck and Joseph Cotten, the film features Lionel Barrymore playing his Ebenezer Scrooge/Mr. Potter character type as Senator McCanles. Lillian Gish makes a rare film appearance as Laura, the loving motherly figure and the Senator’s wife. Gish, known as possibly the first real movie “star” when movies where beginning as a modern phenomenon in the early silent era, returns to the silver screen after disappearing from the medium with the advent of talking pictures and focusing on Broadway. Her performance is rather unmemorable, but with her stature in the cinema annuls and the dramatic death of her character she would be honored with an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Other notable actors of merit to appear in the picture as Walter Huston, Harry Carey, and Charles Bickford in supporting roles, as well as an uncredited Orson Welles for a brief narrator role.

Most controversially casting was the star Jennifer Jones, who at the time was sharing a romantic relationship with producer David O. Selznick. The affair had already ended Jones’s marriage with actor Robert Walker while Selznick’s marriage to Irene Mayer, daughter of MGM head Louis B. Mayer, eventually led to divorce in 1948, opening the door for Jones and Selznick to wed in 1949. Selznick’s vehicle to praise his movie star lover included the hiring of filmmaker Josef con Sternberg as a lighting expert to ensure Jones was presented in the best light possible despite already having the honorable King Vidor directing the picture. It may not have been publicly evident at the time of production, but it was clear this film was a way for Selznick to build up Jones’ career. Jones’ performance as the “exotic” “half-breed” would play well for a lusty story, but falls greatly short of a great performance in a serious role. However that would not stop Hollywood politics that earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.

Assembled in a manner that was similar to Gone with the Wind, complete with overtures, a vast orchestral score, Technicolor, and magnificently beautiful visuals, the film was a simple picture. Critics shared mixed to negative reviews. The $2 million of publicity would help grab great public attention and good box office numbers, but with its hefty budget the picture barely broke even. The film found scorn from moral organizations for the film’s overt sexual tones from Jones’ character. In fact it was so strong for the times that the Hayes Office ordered it pared down to in order to gain approval for release. A scene where Jones dances for Peck’s character was cut out to meet their demands, but plenty of the straight forward sexual overtones remain apparent, leading to disapproval from the moral societies, but gained interest from the more liberal audiences.

Ultimately the picture in the mind of Selznick was that it was a failure. His dreams of the next Gone with the Wind failed to catch on with the public. With the help of television airings, the film would remain in the public conscious, inspiring future filmmakers with its beautiful imagery, but with time would be seen as one of the grandest worst movies of its day. People love it or think nothing of it, becoming a remnant of a bygone era of Hollywood’s past. For a studio that prided itself on high quality motion pictures, this just happened to be one that found no traction. Ultimately it is a forgettable picture for a time and studio that usually proved to provide much more in its products.

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