Western Roundup: TCMFF and Winchester ’73

Western Roundup: TCMFF and Winchester ’73

The 10th Annual TCM Classic Film Festival, also known as TCMFF, recently took place in Hollywood, California.

It was my eighth time to attend the festival, which ran from April 11th through 14th, 2019.

TCMFF 2019
TCMFF 2019, a classic movie-goers paradise!

The festival is a remarkable opportunity to watch a wide variety of films. This year I saw 15 movies and a clip show in a little over 72 hours. The films I saw encompassed musicals, romantic comedies, sci-fi, melodrama, adventure, crime, and yes, Westerns!

Frankly, Westerns tend to receive short shrift at TCMFF compared to other genres. I rely on my annual fall visit to the Lone Pine Film Festival as my best chance to see lots of Westerns!

That said, some of my most memorable viewing experiences at TCMFF have been Westerns, including gorgeous prints of Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946), Red River (1948), and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). Seeing those classics on a big screen with an enthusiastic audience is an experience like no other. I especially remember the audience breaking into applause for Yakima Canutt’s famous “under the stagecoach” stunt in Stagecoach; it was a thrilling shared moment of appreciation with fellow classic film fans.

There were a couple of interesting Western options at this year’s festival, starting with a pair of Tom Mix silents, The Great K & A Train Robbery (1926) and Outlaws of Red River (1927). Both films played in the festival’s newest venue, the beautiful Legion Theater at Hollywood Post 43, and were accompanied by live organ music provided by Ben Model. Though my schedule took me elsewhere, my husband was there and reported that the Mix films were well attended and great fun.

The festival also featured a 50th-anniversary screening of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), but quite honestly my one viewing years ago was more than enough for that title.

Happily, the other Western on this year’s TCMFF schedule was an absolute “must see” for me, the U.S. premiere of a digital restoration of Winchester ’73 (1950). The restoration was a joint project of Universal Pictures and Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation.

TCMFF 2018 Winchester '73
TCMFF movie banner for Winchester ’73

The film was introduced by Jeremy Arnold, who also happens to have introduced the screening of Canyon Passage (1946) at the Autry Museum of the American West which I wrote about earlier this year.

Winchester ’73 was the first movie in the eight-film collaboration between star James Stewart and director Anthony Mann, who was recommended by Stewart for the job. A unique bit of trivia about the film is that it helped usher in the era of actors taking percentages of profits as pay; Universal couldn’t afford Stewart’s fee so he took a percentage of the profits, tripling his usual salary.

Winchester '73 (1950) James Stewart
James Stewart as Lin McAdam in Winchester ’73

In the Mann films, Stewart’s work took on new dimensions, adding darker shadings to his all-American persona. Truth be told, there were glimmers of that darker side at least as far back as The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and The Mortal Storm (1940), coming into full focus with his first postwar film, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). The glimpses of bitterness and anger contrasting with Stewart’s likable, easygoing qualities were part of what made him such an interesting, multi-dimensional actor. Together Stewart and Mann built on and deepened Stewart’s screen persona over a series of remarkable films.

Winchester '73 (1950) James Stewart, cowboy
Trivia: James Stewart was named the winner of the third annual Reno Silver Spurs award as the best Western actor of 1951 for his performance. The film was also named best Western film and Anthony Mann was named best Western director.

In Winchester ’73, Stewart plays Lin McAdam, who is traveling the West with his friend High Spade (Millard Mitchell) in search of a man named Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally).

Winchester '73 (1950) Stephen McNally
Stephen McNally as Dutch Henry Browm

Lin finds Dutch Henry in Dodge City, where they grimly face off in a shooting competition under the watchful eye of Wyatt Earp (Will Geer). Lin wins the titular rifle, desired by all who see it, but Dutch Henry steals the rifle from him and flees town, and the chase is on again.

Winchester '73 (1950) Movie Poster
This is the story of the Winchester Rifle Model 1873, ‘The gun that won the West.’ To cowman, outlaw, peace officer or soldier, the Winchester ’73 was a treasured possession. An Indian would sell his soul to own one.”

As Lin trails Dutch Henry, the Winchester rifle has a journey of its own, finding its way from Dutch Henry to a merchant (John McIntire) who sells guns to the Indians; the gun is next stolen by an Indian chief (Rock Hudson), and after the Indians battle the cavalry, a sergeant finds the rifle and gives it to cowardly Steve Miller (Charles Drake).

Outlaw Waco Johnny Dean (Dan Duryea) is next to possess the gun, but he won’t be the last, as he crosses paths with both Dutch Henry and Lin.

Winchester '73 (1950) Dan Duryea, James Stewart
Dan Duryea and James Stewart get tough

Winchester ’73 has a great many positive attributes, starting with the fine screenplay by Borden Chase and Robert L. Richards, based on a story by Stuart N. Lake. The dialogue is pure gold, beautifully written and with as little time spent on back story exposition as possible; just like the rifle, the plot is always moving forward, and we learn about the characters from their dealings with one another.

Stewart’s Lin is a man of contradictions, whose wild-eyed anger when he fights with Waco Johnny is downright scary, yet who treats dance hall gal Lola (Shelley Winters) with gallantry. He joshes with High Spade about High Spade’s willingness to cook and do chores for him, but he also has a quietly tender moment when he expresses gratitude for High Spade’s loyal friendship.

Winchester '73 (1950) James Stewart, Shelley Winters, Dan Duryea
Winchester ’73 Movie Poster

Dan Duryea doesn’t enter the film until it’s about two-thirds over, but what an entrance, as he gleefully bursts into a house, guns a-blazing. He’s clearly a very bad man, but his lighthearted humor provides an interesting contrast with the film’s more dour villain, Dutch Henry. Duryea seems to be having great fun in the role, and his scene-stealing performance is one factor among many which elevate this film from “good” to “great.”

Dutch Henry was a career high point for Stephen McNally, a former attorney who had spent several years in small parts at MGM acting under his birth name, Horace McNally. Upon leaving MGM he switched his name and found larger roles in films such as Johnny Belinda (1948), Criss Cross (1949), Split Second (1953), and various Universal Westerns. The palpable antagonism between Dutch Henry and Lin is thanks to the fine work of both actors, and their final confrontation is one of the more memorable shootouts in Western film history.

In Millard Mitchell and James Millican (who plays Dutch Henry’s sidekick Wheeler), the film has two of the finest character actors of the ’50s. Tragically, both men would die of cancer within a few years, Mitchell in 1953, age 50, and Millican in 1955, only 45 years old. While Millican admittedly doesn’t have a great deal to do here other than add his stature to the film, Mitchell’s character provides viewers with important insights into Lin’s character, reassuring the viewer that despite his often-angry exterior, Lin is at heart a very good man. If the kind High Spade trusts Lin, the audience is safe trusting Lin as well.

The deep cast also features Steve Brodie, John Alexander, Tony Curtis, James Best, and Ray Teal.

The beautiful photography by William Daniels at times looks like animated paintings, stunning views of the untouched American West under white clouds. Seeing the restored print on a big screen was a festival highlight for me.

Winchester '73 (1950) Movie Poster
A must-see for fans of western cinema!

Winchester ’73 is a very special film, one of the key American Westerns, and it’s highly recommended viewing.

– 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.

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7 Responses to Western Roundup: TCMFF and Winchester ’73

  1. Jeremy Entract says:

    I’ve been looking forward to reading your thoughts very carefully focussed on this one film, “WINCHESTER ’73”, Laura!
    As I might have expected, you absolutely ‘nailed’ what makes this western so special, from Duryea’s explosive performance to the development of James Stewart’s acting persona upon his return from service in WW2. The western might not previously have seemed an obvious home for Jimmy and yet immediately he was completely ‘at home’ in the saddle. And of course he went on to become one of THE favourite western stars. Certainly one of mine.

    Btw, many years ago the BBC showed a fine print of “THE GREAT K&A TRAIN ROBBERY” on TV and I recorded via my quite new VCR (shows how long ago this was). Happily I still have the recording (transferred to disc). I really need to dig it out for a rewatch, to see Tom Mix and Tony at the peak of their powers. Today it is hard to remember what a massive star Tom Mix was during the silent era. A favourite of my Dad’s as a child/youth.

  2. walter says:

    Laura, I really enjoyed your fine write-up of the “Great” Western WINCHESTER ’73(1950). I’m envious of you for being able to view this United States premiere of a digital restoration made possible as a joint project of Universal Pictures and Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation. My hat is off to them and I hope this restoration project continues with other Universal Pictures from the 1946-62 era.

    WINCHESTER ’73 is a “Great” movie, and I use the term sparingly, but not in this case. I really can’t say much more than has already been written about this “Masterpiece.” Although, it wasn’t a given that James Stewart would star. Producer Aaron Rosenberg had to convince the executives, or suits as they are called, at Universal-International that Stewart could play the part. At first the suits thought that Stewart would be to weak and vacillating to pull off the role of a tough westerner. Producer Rosenberg stressed Stewart’s World War II war record and the suits were finally convinced to give Stewart the role.

    In Allen Eyles’ biography of JAMES STEWART(1984), Screenwriter Borden Chase recalls, “The most frightening experience I ever had was WINCHESTER ’73 when we previewed it and the minute Jimmy Stewart’s name came on the screen, everybody laughed.” Looking back today, this is somewhat hard to believe. James Stewart, hands down, deserves all the credit for creating his new Western Hero persona with such realistic conviction, which is believable. In one single role Stewart recast his image, which made way for the roles that followed. As Jerry Entract said about Stewart, “immediately he was completely ‘at home’ in the saddle.”

    Looking forward to your next Western Write-up.

  3. Laura Grieve says:

    Jerry and Walter, I so appreciate your regular readership and comments! I’m delighted you enjoyed it and share my love for this terrific film.

    Jerry, to elaborate on our thoughts on Duryea’s performance, I think it might be one of the best character entrances ever in the movies. I like your description of his performance as “explosive” — so true. Great memories you shared regarding Tom Mix! We loved the Mix film we saw at Lone Pine last year and my husband really liked the two additional Mix films he saw this year. We obviously need more Tom Mix in our life!

    Walter, it would certainly be wonderful if additional restorations are forthcoming. Thanks very much for sharing that great Borden Chase anecdote from the Stewart bio.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

  4. A restored Winchester ’73! All these years I thought it was beautiful as was. I can’t imagine the magnificence now.

  5. Laura says:

    It was lovely, Patricia!! The frontier scenes with the cloud-filled skies are so majestic.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

  6. Ana Roland says:

    I took a western film class and Winchester ’73 was one of the films we studied. It is a terrific film and one I enjoy watching when it is on TCM. I did want to comment about the 50th-anniversary screening of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). I went to the screening at TCMFF mostly for the interview with Burt Bacharach (the sound track of my life~I played his songs on the piano growing up…). In Eddie Muller’s capable hands you saw that Bacharach felt very comfortable talking with him. It was a memorable experience at the festival for me. To be honest I felt like you at first, I wasn’t as enthused to see the film again. I saw it when it came out in 1969. I was so young. I have to say, seeing it at Grauman’s was like seeing a whole new film. I was totally swept away by the film. I left the theater totally loving the film and crushin’ on this incarnation of Robert Redford. I surprised myself because it was not one of my original top picks.
    P.S. I have had the pleasure of seeing a Tom Mix film at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. We saw “No Man’s Gold” with musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin and Frank Bockius. To add to the experience, Sosin wrote a song for us to sing-a-long…It was just like the good old days!

  7. Laura Grieve says:

    Hi Ana! I loved reading your comments on WINCHESTER ’73 and BUTCH CASSIDY. Very interested to read your reaction revisiting BUTCH CASSIDY (which I last saw in college). Like you I have had those experiences where I revisited a film and felt much different. I strongly dislike Redford, always have (I’m sure in the minority!) — but I used to dislike other actors like Marlene Dietrich and am finding more to like as I revisit their work, so it’s entirely possible I could feel differently seeing BC again one day!

    Loved hearing about seeing a Mix film. I saw one a couple years ago (JUST TONY) and it was terrific. I’d love to have enjoyed your experience at the SF Silent Film Festival! That festival in general is one I’d love to visit one day.

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!

    Best wishes,
    Laura

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