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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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 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.