Western Roundup: Canyon Passage and The Autry
Classic film fans in Southern California are fortunate to have a wide variety of opportunities to see classic films, including Westerns, on a big screen.
I recently had the chance to see a 35mm screening of the wonderful Western Canyon Passage (1946) at The Autry Museum of the American West.
As I mentioned here in my Christmas column, the museum was founded by Gene Autry in 1988. Along with his co-founders, his wife Jackie and Mr. and Mrs. Monte Hale, Gene built a museum to “exhibit and interpret the heritage of the West and show how it influenced America and the world.” The museum is also “dedicated to exploring an inclusive history of the American West,” including the histories of Indians and other minorities.
The museum houses over 600,000 artifacts and archival materials. As part of chronicling myriad aspects of the Western experience, the museum devotes considerable space and resources to Western films — no surprise, given the career histories of cofounders Autry and Hale! More on the museum will follow later in this column.
The museum has an ongoing film series, “What is a Western?” which is dedicated to exploring Westerns “and the ways in which they shape our understanding of the American West.” Canyon Passage was shown as part of this series, preceded by a very informative introduction by film historian Jeremy Arnold.
Jeremy shared the information that the film was based on a novel by Ernest Haycox, who also wrote the story which inspired Stagecoach (1939). The film Canyon Passage was originally envisioned to serve as a reunion for Stagecoach stars John Wayne, Claire Trevor, and Thomas Mitchell.
I agree with Jeremy that as marvelous as those actors are, their presence would have made Canyon Passage an entirely different film, and I’m glad that producer Walter Wanger ultimately cast Dana Andrews, Susan Hayward, and Brian Donlevy. (I do agree with a suggestion I read that Robert Preston would have been ideal alternate casting for Donlevy’s role, though Donlevy is excellent.)
Director Jacques Tourneur had made a name for himself with low-budget RKO thrillers such as Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1944), and his most recent film was the Gothic romantic mystery Experiment Perilous. With Canyon Passage, Tourneur had the opportunities of a big budget and extensive location filming in Oregon, and he made the most of it.
As Jeremy noted, part of the film’s uniqueness is its very green outdoor setting, filmed by Edward Cronjager at sites including Oregon’s Diamond Lake and Crater Lake. There have been relatively few films made in Oregon, especially as of the mid-’40s, and with so much of the film’s running time shot outdoors, it gives the movie a fresh and authentically Western feel in its depiction of a frontier town in 1856.
When I first saw the film about 15 years ago, I was a bit confused by its loose plotting; indeed, Jeremy challenged viewers to be able to tell him the plot after the movie! I now see the storytelling style as quite modern, using the “elliptical” methods of a program like Mad Men which doesn’t show everything, only certain high points, and flits from character to character, with some key moments taking place offscreen. Although Logan (Andrews) and Lucy (Hayward) are front and center, Canyon Passage is truly the story of an entire frontier community.
Andrews’ character is a merchant who runs a pack mule service to his remote Oregon town. He becomes better acquainted with Hayward’s Lucy, who’s engaged to his friend George (Donlevy), when he escorts her home from Portland.
There is clearly an attraction between Logan and Lucy, yet Lucy remains loyal to George and Logan eventually proposes to Caroline (Patricia Roc), an orphaned young woman who lives with his friends the Dances (Andy Devine and Dorothy Peterson). Caroline’s acceptance of Logan’s proposal disappoints Vane (Victor Cutler), a young man who works for Logan who also loves Caroline.
The plot, such as it is, is about the characters’ relationships and challenges, whether it’s gradually changing romantic alliances, George (Donlevy) and his gambling addiction, Logan dealing with a bully (Ward Bond, unforgettably evil), or an Indian uprising; we see the community at its best and worst, whether it’s the quick “frontier justice” trial of an accused murderer or the townspeople coming together to build a cabin for newlyweds.
The maturity and kindness of most of the characters in their personal relationships is striking; Lucy and Logan remain committed to George and Caroline until freed by circumstances, and Logan unhesitatingly gives George $2000 to clear up his gambling debts before marrying Lucy. (Sadly, George’s addiction is such that he cannot take advantage of the chance at a fresh start.) The self-possessed Lucy may enjoy kissing Logan, at George’s instigation, but she’s no flirt. The respectful way the lead characters treat one another stands in stark contrast to the bullying of Honey Bragg (Bond), and one of the film’s tragedies is the way George slowly slips into emulating Bragg’s evil behavior himself.
In my thinking, a great film reveals more to the viewer each time it’s seen. It’s been clear to me on previous viewings that George has innate laziness, along with the torments of addiction, but this time I was particularly struck by the way he exists outside the community. During the house raising he’s finely dressed, sitting under a tree with Lucy; it’s not simply that he won’t get his hands dirty with hard work, but emotionally he doesn’t feel connected to the others or desire to help them, as he already has one foot “out the door” of the town.
I also particularly loved the scene where Logan and Vane find Caroline wandering in the forest after the Indian attack. The way Vane says “Caroline,” with relief, love, and longing in his voice, really affected me — as it does Caroline in the film. She looks at Vane and, despite her trauma-induced confusion, seems to see him clearly for the first time; indeed, Vane’s gentleness seems to help snap her back to reality.
Given the lack of ardor in Logan’s original proposal to Caroline, asking if she likes him enough to marry him, it was fitting that she politely released him from his obligation in favor of Vane. Not only would this give Caroline her goal of a permanent home, but she would also have a man who truly loved her; Logan, meanwhile, is clearly better matched with the more adventurous Lucy, who is willing to spend days on the trail and can support Logan’s need to travel as he builds his business. As Logan leaves the homestead, in the distance we see him shaking Vane’s hand, giving him his blessing, and we know that all will be well for both couples.
One of the joys of a film of this era is the cast; besides those actors already named, the town is filled with great faces like Hoagy Carmichael, Lloyd Bridges, Fay Holden, Stanley Ridges, and Halliwell Hobbes. Carmichael plays a key role as a sort of roving minstrel and town spy/gossip; he co-wrote the Oscar-nominated “Ole Buttermilk Sky” for this film.
“Ole buttermilk sky – I’m a-keeping my eye peeled on you – What’s the good word tonight – Are you gonna be mellow tonight?“
The many talented people who made this film combined efforts to provide a richly rewarding viewing experience, and as the final notes of “Ole Buttermilk Sky” fade away, the viewer is both sad to part ways with the characters yet very glad to have spent time in their company.
I hope to return to the Autry for future Western screenings, starting with Budd Boetticher’s The Tall T (1957) in a few weeks.
As described at the top of this post, the Autry has exhibits on many facets of the Western experience, including “real” and “reel.” The museum houses an impressive collection of Western art, with cinema and art history coming together in the fact that there is a gallery named for Western actor and artist George Montgomery:
Carrillo, besides being well known for playing Pancho in the TV Western The Cisco Kid, was also a significant figure in “real” California history; he was a preservationist who served on the State Beach and Parks Commission for years and played a key role in the state taking over Hearst Castle. Today his ranch is a museum, and a state park and an elementary school are named in his honor.
Guns owned (top to bottom) by Gail Davis, Tim Holt, and Gene Autry:
The museum also has a gun owned by Wyatt Earp, who was the subject of my December column:
I’m particularly a fan of Buck Jones, who died tragically in the 1942 Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston, so it was quite special to see his saddle:
A section on singing cowboys includes this ukelele donated by Dick Foran‘s son:
The museum has many other film-related treasures, including costumes worn by John Wayne and Alan Ladd, Indian costumes donated by Iron Eyes Cody, a Norman Rockwell painting of Gary Cooper, and Western gear worn by Charles Starrett, Johnny Mack Brown, Hoot Gibson, Russell Hayden, and more.
I encourage my fellow Western fans who have the opportunity to go to Griffith Park in Los Angeles and pay a visit to The Autry!
– Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub
Laura can be found at her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she’s been writing about movies since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film fan, Laura loves the classics including Disney, Film Noir, Musicals, and Westerns. She regularly covers Southern California classic film festivals. Laura will scribe on all things western at the ‘Western RoundUp’ for CMH.