OSCAR’S BACK…AND THE LADIES’VE GOT HIM!!!
This is the fifth annual ’31 DAYS OF OSCAR Blogathon’ hosted by bloggers Kellee of “Outspoken & Freckled”, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club” and Aurora of “Once Upon A Screen.” This is the place for one’s work to be seen and read, so I made sure to get my butt in gear for this blogathon. We classic film fans enjoy the yearly Oscar telecast where we cheer and jeer at the winners in a variety of categories. With this blogathon we all get to cover the waterfront on those who’ve won or were snubbed by the Academy. Thanks ladies for giving us a place to hang our soapbox.
Now you might think my entry is as long~winded as the Oscar telecast itself. But I think my writing about a movie that should have won an Academy Award for Best Motion Picture of 1943 deserves the depth and breadth of examination. So, take your shoes off, grab a sarsparilla, whiskey and some beef jerky and beans…and let me take you back to the Old West.
Here are the nominees for Best Picture of 1943:
I admit…I’m head scratching at some of the nominees for 1943, but for others I can see why…the romance, the war, the toll on families. But I make my choice for this Western because of its look at Society. What makes a Society? What are the components? What makes us civilized? What makes us pass or fail as a body in the human community? Of all the films that were nominated in 1943, I think “The Ox~Bow Incident” is a stellar example of its sweeping nature of the examination of Society. Sit back. Relax. Are you comfy? Have that cuppa cuppa at the ready. C’mon…take a look with me at WILLIAM WELLMAN’s masterwork. This film is mighty powerful stuff.
AN IMMOVABLE OBJECT MEETS AN IRRESISTIBLE FORCE:
Justice vs. Vengeance, the Group vs. the Individual
It is 1885 in Nevada. And three factions race hellbent towards each other to make the most tragic of perfect storms:
A. The Mob
B. The Law
C. The Rustlers
D. The Innocent Bystander
Rancher Larry Kincaid ( FRANK ORTH ) has been shot in the head and rustlers have stolen his cattle. This is the impetus for events that unfold. Kincaid’s best childhood friend Jeff Farnley ~ played by gangster bad-guy MARC LAWRENCE ( who fits pretty good in the Western genre ) ~ is angry and wants to catch the Rustlers. Inside the posse are followers and instigators and thrill~seekers.
* * * * *
( A ) THE MOB ~ ( THE GROUP )
The posse quickly turns into a Mob. It doesn’t take much for this to happen. First off, they are not sworn in by any duly appointed representative of The Law. Deputy Mapes might as well have been played by the swarthy Steve Cochran for all the good he does. ( The deputy’s played by actor DICK RICH ). Every one’s blood is boiling ~ especially Farnley’s ~ there’s been some drinking and there seems to be nothing else to do in this town. When justice is abandoned and vengeance sets in…you’ve just gone from posse to mob in a microwave moment.
There’s one really hateful S.O.B. in this mob named Smith ( played by PAUL HURST ). He is downright giddy about the proceedings. HE is the first to mention they ought to just go and get these Rustlers and not wait for the law. He occasionally takes a rope and pretends to put it around his neck, mocking the ‘necktie party’ to come. Out of everyone, I really despised his hateful glee. When the saloon keeper offers the mob a drink in an effort to get them to wait for the law, the first one up the steps is Smith. But he stops dead in his tracks when the saloon keeper says the drinks will not be unlimited.
The mob moves as a unit or should I say…organism; a slimy, yellow-bellied blob monster. When a bystander’s partner is shot, they surround the wounded man. When an escaping Rustler is shot, he is surrounded to watch how he takes a bullet out of his leg. Life’s like a live inter-active movie to this group.
The bloodlust of the group is palpable. When they catch up to the Rustlers, I imagine every man in that mob is aroused at the prospect of engineering and watching the hangings, just as much as the men were aroused in Jodie Foster’s rape in “The Accused” whether they took their ‘turn’ or not. The Mob instigate events and watch them play out. And the one woman with them? She is played by the great JANE DARWELL. Being part of this mob is probably the only thrill her character, Jenny Grier, has had in a very long time, being long past desirability. It’s sickly funny to see her paired off with Smith, giggling on the side like deadly mischievous school children. I would have gladly shot them both myself.
DEPLORABLES ( same sentiments…different century )
Mobs need leaders, and the self-proclaimed leader of the pack is one Major Tetley played chillingly by FRANK CONROY. He fills the vacuum and moves right in to direct this mob. What did we used to say as kids: “Who died and made you King?!” I watch him throughout. Barking out orders, rigid…ramrod straight in his physique and mindset…all in that confounded Confederate uniform that sausages him in too tightly. It‘s now 1885, the Civil War was some twenty years before. The two cowboys Gil and Art don’t trust him:
GIL: “And that renegade Tetley. Strutting around in his uniform pretending he’s so much. He never even saw the South ‘till after the war. Barely long enough to marry the kid’s mother and get run out of the place by her folks.”
ART: “I figure there was something funny about him dressing up like that.”
GIL: “Sure. Why do you suppose he’d be living in this neck of the woods if he didn’t have something to hide.”
Check out the look of hateful disappointment, no wait…the contempt Tetley has for his own son. Can anyone spell ‘loathing’? He thwarts every plea to wait for the Law. He needs this…wants this to happen. But it’s even worse. This obstinate b*stard has another agenda he uses the mob to satisfy: Making a MAN of his son played with softness, empathy and compassion by WILLIAM EYTHE.
* * * * *
( B ) THE LAW
The one lone voice of reason is Arthur Davies. He is played by the wonderful HARRY DAVENPORT. I love his soft, wispy, white hair and whiskers. I love the flat affect of his voice. He tries to stop the mob. He sends cowhand Gil Carter for the Judge since the Sheriff is out of town. He doesn’t mind a posse, but he knows things are spiraling quickly out of control. When he sends Gil to get the Judge, he warns him NOT to talk in front of the Deputy (the ‘Steve Cochran look-a-like’ guy). I guess he knows what kind of man the Deputy is. And it isn’t the good kind.
But the Law kind of fails Society too. The Judge ( played by MATT BRIGGS ) tries to petulantly weasel out of his responsibility, ( “Doggone it, it’s the Sheriff’s job, not mine!” ) He reluctantly faces the mob and half-heartedly gives them a lecture about law and yadda yadda yadda.
Davies still tries to persuade Farnley not to go off half-cocked. But I’m afraid he’s fully cocked. Farnley’s declaration:
“Yeah, I know who’s going to take care of it. ME! I tell you now, whoever shot Larry Kincaid ain’t coming back here for you to fuddle with your lawyer’s tricks for six months, then be led off because Davies and some other whining old woman claim he ain’t bad at heart. Kincaid didn’t have six months to decide if he wanted to die.”
Uh…I’d say his position is pretty clear. And things haven’t changed too much these days. ( #RUSHTOJUDGEMENT )
If this is going to be the way it’s going to be, the Law invites Spirituality in to the mix. I love the way Sparks was used in this film. LEIGH WHIPPER portrays Sparks. Looking at his bio in IMDB, the actor was born in 1876 in South Carolina. I daresay he probably has witnessed some lynchings in his own life. It was good to see a person of color included in the movie as part of late 19th century. Wellman treated his character with respect. This film was made in 1943. Wellman didn’t have Whipper tap dancing or speaking broken English or mugging for the camera showing 65 teeth. ( Brings to my the dignity he accorded Clarence Muse in 1931’s “Safe in Hell” a happy~go~lucky but dignified porter ). He represented some sort of religion, spirituality. And Lord knows that whole group is going to need prayer.
The mob is very clear on what it’s going to do. It kind of hurt me to see the old man ( Davenport ) run a little ways down the street, calling after them. As the mob rides off, The Law rides off after them in an attempt to keep some semblance of law and order within the group. Even with the Rustlers captured…The Law keeps on pitching. Davies even tries to use one of the Rustler’s letter to dissuade the mob from its inexorable intent.
He will fail.
* * * * *
( C ) THE RUSTLERS ~ ( THE INDIVIDUAL )
Oh, what a motley crue this doomed trio is. One arrogant, one drunk and one sincere. It is sad to see the realization wash over their faces when they see where this is heading…they are going to be hanged. Watch how they each handle this realization. FRANCIS FORD ( yes, THAT director’s older brother ) is the old man…sputtering. He doesn’t know what the heck was going on. They could’ve really let this old coot go.
But they don’t.
The arrogant man makes me sit up and take notice. Yeah, he’s full of spit and vinegar and machismo. Of course, he is Latino. Juan Martinez, is played by the towering ANTHONY QUINN. HE looks at his accusers with contempt. HE is not trying to rationalize and reason with this den of vultures. HE is not going down without a fight. HE patently is NOT going to talk. I’m sure the mob looked down on him b’cuz they thought of him as a dirty Mexican. When Jenny Grier realizes he speaks English she says:
“So…he speaks American.”
“And ten other languages my dear. I don’t tell anything I want to in any of them!”
HA!! When he says he can speak ten languages, I laughed! NOW who is the Savage?? He cleans out his own leg wound (!) commenting to Major Tetley about his son:
“He’s very polite, but he’s no stomach for blood, ey?”
That sends a dagger through Tetley’s heart; someone noticing his son was “weak.” Martinez also throws the knife at Farnley’s feet. He was not going down without a fight. I loved him.
But he is going to hang.
The kindly man of the bunch was DANA ANDREWS as Don Martin. He broke my heart.
“Speak up man. You’re taking it like a woman,” says Maj. Tetley.
Another time, Wellman doesn’t even show Jenny Grier who delivers her line off-camera:
“Keep your chin up. You can only die once, son.”
How cruelly consoling!
The Rustler’s goal is to slow things down:
MARTIN: “Listen, why don’t you stop this farce and take us in if you think we had anything to do with it?”
But The Mob’s goal is to speed things up:
FARNLEY: “You want time and the Sheriff to get here and the job not done?”
The Law now speaks with resignation:
DAVIES: “They won’t come in time.”
TETLEY: “I believe you’re right, Mr. Davies, though I doubt if you want to be.”
The Mob does show one infinitessimal shred of pity for poor Don when he begs:
“I’ve got to write a letter. If you’re human at all, you’ll give me time to write a letter!!”
Thank Heaven for small favors…The Mob will wait to hang them, especially realizing the Sheriff won’t come in time anyway. The vulturous mob needs to eat and raids the Rustlers’ knapsacks for food. So Don writes…the old man is clueless…and Martinez eats a hearty meal.
Mr. Davies ( DAVENPORT ) keeps quietly pitching, trying to get someone to read Don’s letter so they can SEE his innocence. He’s still trying to stop the mob…get it to wait for the Law. No one will read it; not even Gil Carter. ( More on Carter later. )
“Won’t you even read it? Is it because you’ve made up your mind or because you believe everybody else has and you’re afraid to stand up for what you feel is right?”
The individual must cry out and rail against the tide…against the wind, even if it means getting swept away. Even if it means drowning. Don and Mr. Davies have that in common. These two lone men try to stop the inevitable. Don wants to survive to go home to his family. Mr. Davies wants the Law to survive.
But even in the midst of the inevitable, Don Martin STILL has the wherewithal to speak up for his dignity. Where Martinez willfully would NOT speak, Don Martin shouts volumes. I love how Don gets in their faces yelling:
“What right have you got to show my letter…All I asked you to do is make sure it was delivered…It’s enough to be hanged by a bunch of bullying outlaws without having your private thoughts handed around to them as a joke…I don’t care what you were doing. I didn’t write that letter to be passed around. It’s none of these murderers’ business…give me my letter!!”
Not only is he to be hanged, but humiliated. A shame.
There IS one more component to the symbiotic relationship between lynch mob and rustlers.
* * * * *
( D. ) THE INNOCENT BYSTANDER ~ ( NEUTRALITY )
It didnt work for Neville Chamberlin, either.
HENRY FONDA and sidekick HENRY MORGAN are innocent bystanders Gil Carter and Art Croft who get swept up by the tide of the mob. They feel they have no choice. In fact, Art lets Gil know that if they make too much of a fuss, there may be a noose around their necks as well. Gil doesn’t approve but he keeps a watchful eye on things. His inactivity ~ is he us, the audience…watching events at the safe dark distance of the local bijou?? When sides have to finally be chosen…
I won’t beat too much of a dead horse on the classic film consensus about how good Fonda’s portrayal. Let me just say he was wonderfully understated and seething. He is us, the audience. Henry ”Dragnet” “MASH” Morgan is a good Greek chorus, too. Fonda’s silent meeting with ex~girlfriend played by MARY BETH HUGHES was poignant. Sort of a non~sequitur in these parts, don’cha think. Why stick this moment into a film about a lynch mob.
Why. Perhaps to show something of how human relationships change; how Hughes’ character might have been one way at one point in her life, but found a man willing to marry her…even with knowing her past. In Fonda’s and Hughes’ scene neither one of them could speak openly because they were being watched by the mob and her new husband. (Nothing is private with a lynch mob. Everything’s worked out in front of everybody. Sometimes less is more.) Brave man, that husband of hers as he faces the mob; many of the gents “knew” his wife very well and purposefully faced Fonda. But the husband was strong and self-assured when he quietly let them ALL know things have changed; there would be boundaries with his new bride.
But after they’ve gone….it’s now time to take sides in this lynchin’ thing.
Sharpe is the first man who crosses over wanting no part of this decision to hang these men…six other men stand with him. Interesting and wonderful thoughts went through my head as I thought of the Jim Crow South. Sharpe is in the center…the focal point. I’ll love William Wellman forever for that image.
Gil can take it no more when he sees Don struck while his hands are tied behind his back. He barrels into the attacker and the mob starts to fight each other. Gil has taken a stand. But too late. Tetley fights for order before the hanging. ( Reminiscent of “Dr. Strangelove” ~ “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” ) He needs this to happen. Somehow this hanging is all tied up with some “weakness” about himself that he loathes sooooooooooooooooooo much, he must beat it out of his son. Martinez picks up on it. And Tetley even says it aloud to his son:
“I’ll have no female boys bearing my name. You’ll do your part, say nothing more!”
I suspect he was really talking to himself. The worse thing a man could be in the wild wild west is…be less than a man. Or produce a son like that.
Yes, yes…the Gil-reading-the-letter-moment is poignant, a heartbreaking an iconic shot by Wellman. ( Click photo to hear the letter. )
“There can’t be any such thing thing as civilization unless people have conscience.”
But there are two smaller moments I like even better: One…when the lynch mob slowly rides away from the scene of their murder. As the horses saunter up the hill around the mountain, Gil (FONDA) takes one last look at the three men hanging. He shudders and shakes his head as he passes the bodies. The second moment comes in the bar after it’s all said and done.
As Gil reads the letter, we get a shot of Farnley. This got to me even more. I think we see a man recognizing the enormity of what he’s done. And that he’s going to pay.
IF Hollywood were more courageous, they would have given “THE OX~BOW INCIDENT” the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1943. No telling where America would be now if Hollywood lead the way in showing us how to aspire to be our better angels. Yeah yeah…I know what Goldwyn said about messages and Western Union. But I think movies and the Media can construct HOW people see the world. I think the Academy missed a big chance back in ’43. The media missed a big chance now, during the recent presidential campaign as well. Funny how history repeats itself.
“God better have mercy on ya. You won’t get any from me.”
William Wellman weaves a seamless tale in this film full of civic lessons without clobbering us over the head. I’m newly appreciating his mastery of genres ( gangster, pre~code, comedy, adventure, war film and social issues ~ of which my friend Wendy wrote an excellent write~up ).
Join our hostesses for this 31 Days of Oscar blogathon and read others’ picks for that coveted Oscar. The Academy Awards are coming up and as I‘ve done since Sidney Poitier and Julie Christie won their Oscar, I will be watching with rapt attention cheering and booing every decision they make. The Oscar telecast is February 26th: HERE are the nominees.
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