The oddly-titled Canyon Passage is currently available online via MUBI UK. I chose to watch it, intrigued by a Technicolor Western from 1946. I’d never heard of the title before but with Jacques Tourneur at the helm and a starry cast it looked like a good bet. It was indeed entertaining and also intriguing in suggesting inspirations for later films. The title is odd because ‘canyon’ makes me think of the dry South West and this story is set in the much wetter North West, specifically inland from Portland, Oregon in the 1850s. (‘Canyon’, Wikipedia tells me, simply means a ravine or gorge and could be in the Rockies.) It’s still an odd title though since it says very little about the film’s narrative.
Logan (Dana Andrews) is a store-owner and muleteer who services the mining settlements in the interior. His aim is to control the passage of people and goods in the region. However, he appears to be caught up in two love triangles. The most important of the two involves Lucy (Susan Hayward) and Logan’s close friend George Camrose (Brian Donlevy) who is a gold agent with an unfortunate gambling addiction. With Lucy likely to marry George, Logan is encouraged to court a young visiting English woman (Patricia Roc) – but she’s also attracted to Logan’s employee, Vane. This might be enough plot for a romance, but Canyon Passage also features a rogue character, ‘Honey’ Bragg (a very aggressive Ward Bond) who targets Logan. Though the settlement of Jacksonville appears well-established, it is still subject to attacks by the local Native Americans who are enraged by some of the actions of the settlers. The cast list also includes three other names familiar to me. The singer Hoagy Carmichael wanders through many scenes in Jacksonville, commenting on events with an appropriate song and making crucial plot interventions. Lloyd Bridges plays the unofficial leader of the local miners and Andy Devine is a settler who has established a staging post – a stopping place on Logan’s trading route. He is also hosting the English woman.
Tourneur manages to pack an enormous amount of plot into 91 minutes. He does this deftly and makes use of superb location footage of the Cascades and his cinematographer, the veteran Edward Cronjager often uses long shots to frame groups rather than close-ups to feature the stars. The complex plot points at different moments to distinct sub-genres of the Western. Canyon Passage is a ‘frontier Western’ located before the Civil War when the frontier is still being contested by Native Americans. It’s a ‘settlement Western’ with time spent on the building of the settlement and an extensive ‘raising’ of a new homestead sequence in which the whole community builds a house for a couple about to be married. It’s also a ‘mining Western’/’mountain Western’ focusing on the potential stories of gold prospecting, saloon bars and gambling. Most of all, this is a narrative in which friendships are tested and harsh decisions related to community and survival have to be made. Overall, it seems to me that this is impressive story-telling.
Canyon Passage was adapted from a novel by Ernest Haycox originally serialised in The Saturday Evening Post in 1945. Haycox was an extremely prolific and popular writer who was born in Portland. He wrote both short stories and novels and two different serial novels appeared in The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s at the same time in 1943. Haycox has been credited in helping to raise the status of Western stories and two of his stories were adapted for John Ford’s Stagecoach and Cecil B De Mille’s Union Pacific (both 1939). Canyon Passage was a Walter Wanger production with a large budget of $2.6 million. Wanger was a major figure in Studio Hollywood becoming a leading producer, sometimes independent but also working under contract at various studios. Susan Hayward was the star he contracted and she would become an award-winning actor in Wanger’s later ‘social issue’ films. Canyon Passage was made at Universal, one of the two ‘mini-majors’ not well-known for larger budgets or for Technicolor at this point. The studio had a long-term relationship with the Rank Organisation in the UK (Rank was actually a bigger studio than Universal in 1946 and had owned a 25% stake in the company since 1936). This explains why Patricia Roc is ‘introduced’ in Canyon Passage as part of a deal to bring US stars to the UK. Roc would have had some US recognition because of the furore surrounding The Wicked Lady (1945) which was ‘unrated’ for US distribution. Her part in Canyon Passage is relatively small and she looks out of place (which is reasonable as the character is meant to be English) – largely ‘ornamental’ and no match for Susan Hayward’s vivacity. As a Rank loanee she joined Margaret Lockwood and later Phyllis Calvert who also made trips to Hollywood.
Dana Andrews was reaching the high point of his stardom in 1946 (the year of Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives – which also featured Hoagy Carmichael). His status had been established by Preminger’s Laura in 1944. I hadn’t thought of Andrews as a Western star but in fact he had several supporting roles in Westerns in the early 1940s. In Canyon Passage he is a strong, confident figure who exudes authority and strength of character and his relationship with Donlevy’s character is believable.
Canyon Passage was by all accounts a successful and popular picture, although the high production budget meant it wasn’t particularly profitable. What struck me most was how much it made me think of later films. I wonder if it influenced Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971)? The use of the setting, the songs that seem to comment on the narrative and the English woman – a far more successful import in the form of Julie Christie. I was also intrigued when I realised that ‘Logan’ is also the name of the Sterling Hayden character in Johnny Guitar (1954) and that ‘McIver’ is the name of a miner who is murdered in Canyon Passage and turns up again as the name of Ward Bond’s blustering character in Johnny Guitar. Several commentators have suggested that perhaps Peter Weir was familiar with the house-raising scene when he made Witness (1982). These scenes are impressive and the log cabins and stone fireplaces made me think of Ford’s The Searchers (1956) as well as his earlier Drums Along the Mohawk (1939). The presence of Andy Devine and Ward Bond also invokes Ford.
I enjoyed Canyon Passage and it confirmed for me the skills and artistic vision of Jacques Tourneur. This was his first Western and first film in colour. A year later he made Out of the Past, often cited as the peak of film noir and one of my favourite films. The clip below from the film’s premiere in Portland gives a flavour of the Hollywood publicity machine in 1946.
A Blu-ray of the film was released in the UK (Region B) by the Scottish company Panamint in 2016: