Friday, September 14, 2007


A colorful, sentimental, rustic melodrama of life in Ozark Mountains among the moonshiners. This is not the kind of movie I would normally gravitate toward, but a friend recommended it so I gave it a shot. The film is based on a very popular novel from 1907 which had already been filmed twice and was filmed again in the 60's. John Wayne plays Matt Mathews, a strapping young man who belongs to a group of people who make their living selling illegal moonshine made in their hidden mountain stills. He believes he lives under a curse: his father left home when Wayne was a child, his mother died soon after, and he thinks he can't live a normal life until he has avenged his mother's death by killing his father. He's sweet on chirpy little Betty Field, but his dead mother fixation won't let him even consider married life until he lifts the curse. One day, a kindly older stranger (Harry Carey) arrives in the mountains just after a revenue agent has shot and wounded Field's father. Carey helps to save the man's life and Field takes a shine to him. He tells her he wants to buy land in the area, specifically Moanin' Meadow, where Wayne's family once lived, though now it's considered haunted. The mountain folk don't take kindly to strangers, but Field tells them all that Carey is her cousin, and after he saves the life of a sick child, he is generally accepted. Carey makes an offer to cranky Beulah Bondi, matriarch of the moonshiners and owner of the land; she is suspicious but he offers her enough money that she can't refuse. Wayne isn't crazy about Carey at first, but slowly warms to him. Soon, Field figures out that Carey is Wayne's father, who hopes to eventually strike up a relationship with him again; Wayne never knew that Carey abandoned his dying wife because he was serving time in prison. Carey and Field think that the mountain folk are spending too much time wrapped in the moonshine business and spending all their spare time scared of outsiders, and they set about making the acquisition of alcohol a low priority. As their crusade succeeds, the Bondi gang gets itchy, realizing that their easy living may be coming to an end. The catalyst for the climax comes when Carey pays to have old blind mountain woman Marjorie Main get an operation to restore her sight. At a family celebration, the newly sighted Main recognizes that Carey is Wayne's father, setting off a struggle for a gun that kills the sweet but simple-minded Pete (Marc Lawrence), and Wayne sets off to kill Carey. If you've seen THE SEARCHERS, you'll figure out how things end up.

I stayed with the movie, but wasn't crazy about the main performers. Wayne is a bit wooden, Field does an unconvincing job with the backwoods language and accent, and though Carey is dignified, he also never fully inhabits his role. I enjoyed more the rich supporting cast, including some actors who do a nice job working against type, like Bondi as a thoroughly nasty old lady (so different from kindly Mrs. Bailey in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE) and the usually lively Main in a low-key role. Lawrence, who played slimy goons in 40's noir pictures, is unrecognizable here as the damaged innocent who meets a tragic end. Filmed in Technicolor, the film looks lovely, with some of it shot on location (mostly in California), but the mountain homes look too, well, Hollywood to be effective. Field’s spacious "shack" in particular reminded me of a rustic version of a suburban home in a 50's Douglas Sirk movie. [DVD]

No comments: