Directed by Anthony Man
Screenplay by Borden Chase, from the novel by
Starring James Stewart, Arthur Kennedy, Julie Adams, and Rock Hudson
In the most famous movie involving the Anthony Mann/Jimmy Stewart/Borden Chase/Rock Hudson quadrumvirate, Winchester 73 (1950), Hudson barely got to play a part, as much as he played a stereotype: he put on red-face makeup to play a war-like Native-American. Of course, while Hudson would be a massive star later, he was a nobody then, so slapping on some red-face makeup was a positive step in his career.
As history has taught us, there’s obvious racism in casting an ethnically white actor to play an ethnically non-white part, but it’s hard not to take Hudson’s portrayal in stride, because that’s the way things were done back then. White people didn’t understand that was not cool. But while I might take it in stride, the practice was inexcusable. Still, you come to expect seeing it, even if you wish you didn’t.
Of course, racism didn’t start and stop at this sort of white-washing – or reverse white-washing. Or whatever you want to call it when a white person plays a non-white person. There’s also the phenomenon of one ethnicity treated as synonymous with all ethnicities. This is why you saw the Mexican actor Anthony Quinn playing Greek, French, Arab, Italian, and yes, Mexican. Or Akim Tamiroff, who was ethnically Armenian, playing Mexican in Touch of Evil, Greek in Topkapi, and Spanish in For Whom the Bell Tolls. That some of these were positive portrayals was incidental to Hollywood’s usual practice of making ethnic characters stereotypes: mammy’s (Gone With The Wind), bandits (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), and comic relief (Around the World in 80 Days).
So here, barely 1/3 of the way through this project it seems that maybe the most relevant take away from movies pre-1962 – at least Hollywood movies – is the inherent racism in them. Both of the overt, and inherent variety.
The inherent variety is that black people, or any people of color, get no quality time in front of, or, or behind the camera. I’m not surprised by their struggles behind the camera, because this series is of movies pre-1962, which was not a time when anybody of any color had any power anywhere. What does surprise me is the racism playing out in front of the camera. In the last entry, Consolation Marriage, that was seen in the role played by Gertrude Howard. While Howard projects dignity, that she’s the only black character in the film, and plays a maid, undercuts every bit of dignity she brings.
Similarly, this movie features a performance by Stepin Fetchit. The difference between his portrayal, and Howard’s? She goes for dignity, he does not. In the scheme of film history some see Fetchit’s work as ultimately subversive, that he was portraying trickster figures who challenges the status quo. That while he played lazy, he was really scheming and pulling one over on somebody. But if that’s his perceived persona, I’m blind to it. After all, here he’s played as alternately drunk or stupid, bordering on mentally challenged. There is no trick or cunning in the character; he’s there for the white people of the time to look at and be reassured that black people were lazy and shiftless, and so didn’t need to be treated as human.
Anyway, I’m not sure which is the worse thing in film history: white people playing other races as gross stereotypes, a la Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or a black man playing a gross stereotype of a black man.
What’s It About?
A reformed outlaw, Glyn (Stewart), leads a group of settlers west into the high country north of Portland, Oregon. Along the way, he rescues Cole (Kennedy) from being lynched as a horse-thief – literally saves the man right out of a noose. Cole is naturally grateful for being saved, and while the two get along well, by the time they hit Portland, where they meet the gambler, Trey (Hudson), it’s clear Cole walks a less-virtuous path than Glyn. After Glyn delivers the settlers more-or-less in one piece to their little slice of heaven, a gold rush hits, turning honest men into profiteers, and the already-not-so-virtous-men into bandits who will kill for anything. In the end, Cole shows his true colors and winds up dead for his sins.
The starting point of this entry, before I diverged into Hollywood’s history of racism, was to mention that Bend of the River came from the same brain trust that made Winchester 73 – same director, same screenwriter, same star. One assumes their thought process in making this movie was to double down on what they’d already done, and make a handsome profit along the way. Unfortunately, while their goal might have been more of the same, what they failed to reckon with was the law of diminishing returns.
The problem with Bend of the River can be summed up like this: it lacks urgency. Unlike Winchester 73, which was a fairly small story that only occasionally nodded towards sweep, Bend of the River explicitly reaches for sweep. But in doing so it sheds the one thing that makes Winchester 73 compelling above all others: urgency. Instead, it tells it’s sweeping story at a measured pace, in no great hurry to arrive at its conclusion, which for me, is the kiss of death. Where the story should move, it ambles, and when it ambles, my mind wanders. And when my mind wanders, it’s hard to corral is again. That is Bend of the River’s failure – it’s lack of drive allows me to escape it, to its own detriment.
There’s a trend running through movie history of pairing older men with a younger woman – usually a much-younger woman, who should properly be playing his daughter. Think of Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant in Charade.
On the one hand, I get this. Men were perennially the power-brokers in Hollywood, especially older men, and, since men perennially see themselves as being in their mid-20s, which makes them age appropriate for young women, its perfectly normal for those same men, upon reaching some level of power, to populate the films around themselves, or men like themselves, with actresses in their 20s.
On the other hand, there is something gross about the way a man might romance a woman young enough to be his daughter.
Where this comes into play for Bend of the River is that Jimmy Stewart must’ve had a thing against this type of pairing because here, as in a previous entry in this series, The Far Country, just when it looks like Stewart’s going to have a love interest who’s young enough to be his daughter, the proposed relationship goes instantly sideways. In The Far Country, Stewart explicitly shoots the relationship down, calling the younger woman a kid and showing interest only in the older woman. Here, though, the lady puts the kibosh on the pairing before anything can get off the ground, sticking him with a figurative dagger when she says he’s handsome, “but in an elderly way.” If there was any hint of a May/December romance before, it’s dead right then.
You Know Me From Somewhere
Amongst the co-stars – or featured players – of Bend of the River, is Harry Morgan. Until the early-70s he was best known from his work on Dragnet, with Jack Webb as Joe Friday. By the mid-70s, though, he became a star on MASH, as Colonel Sherman Potter. He even won an Emmy for his work there, from nine nominations. Here he plays one of the thieving gold miners who double-crosses Glyn, only to be double-crossed himself by Cole.
Amongst the settlers is Frances Bavier, known almost exclusively for having played, Aunt Bea through 180-plus episodes of The Andy Griffith Show, on top of 40 or so more as the same character on Mayberry R.F.D. She might have been forever typecast by that particular role, but seeing her here, as a pre-Aunt Bea version of that character, it’s clear she was not stereotyped there, as much as she was well-cast for it.
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 Or, at least, Stewart would make the handsome profit, as this was another of the films he made in the 1950s where he passed over a paycheck in favor of a hefty percentage of the box office.
 The law of diminishing returns speaks to that point at which the level of profits or benefits gained is less than the amount of money or energy invested in achieving them.
 She too was an Emmy winner for that show.