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:
Following Keith’s advice, I watched Hail, Caesar! in Bradford’s Pictureville Cinema in 4K. It certainly looked good – but whether I would have noticed any difference if it was a 2K print is something I feel unable to judge. Anyway, the film proved an enjoyable distraction for a couple of hours. But, I’m not sure if it was a film that added up to more than its parts.
As the promotional material suggested, the Coen Brothers expertly create the Hollywood studio environment of the early 1950s in loving detail. Strangely, there are some basic mistakes if the setting is supposed to be 1951 as some publicity suggested. (The worst error concerns screen shapes and aspect ratios – a Western is shown in a cinema with a credit for VistaVision which Paramount didn’t use until 1954 and White Christmas.) On the whole, however, taken as an amalgam of Hollywood practices, ‘Capital Pictures’, the studio in the film, represents the period from roughly 1949 to 1953 very well. As several reviewers suggest, the Coens are not really interested in a plot as such, but more in the vignettes of production of different kinds of films and the way in which studio practices are changing – or not.
The two plotlines of note involve the studio ‘fixer’ based on the real Eddie Mannix who worked at MGM. We see him trying to repress gossip stories about the studio’s stars, grapple with his own family and work situation – and find a missing star played by George Clooney in ‘doofus’ mode. None of this adds up to much but does allow the Coens to play with ideas about the US Communist Party, religious sensitivity towards films and the ethics of the military-industrial complex. There are terrific set pieces including a Channing Tatum dance sequence riffing on Gene Kelly and Alden Ehrenreich as a Roy Rogers/Gene Autry ‘singing cowboy’ who for many viewers no doubt steals the picture. There are also two scenes featuring delicious Jewish jokes/characterisations. And yet . . . the film has not attracted huge audiences. It might be that fans will return for repeat viewings but somehow the Coens don’t quite get the excellent parts (performances, sets, cinematography, music etc.) to make something whole. For me, the last really funny Coen Brothers film was O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). I’d rate the ‘serious’ films as better value, with both Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) and A Serious Man (2009) as effective recent titles.
This year Glasgow Film Festival has instituted a set of free screenings of classical Hollywood films under the heading of ‘The Dream Team’ with pairings such as Bogart and Bacall, Doris Day and Rock Hudson, Butch and Sundance etc. Tickets are only obtainable 30 minutes before the screening at 10.30 am. I rolled up to find a queue outside GFT but there was plenty of room in GFT1, the largest auditorium, and everyone was easily accommodated. The pairing was Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in their first film together, Woman of the Year. The screening was introduced (as all GFF screenings I’ve attended have been) but, unlike on most other occasions, co-director Allan Hunter said quite a lot about the film, offering us information about the production and the long loving relationship between Hepburn and the still married Tracy hat started on this film shoot. The intro was well received by an audience that wasn’t totally made up of pensioners. For younger members, Hunter’s insights were no doubt very useful.
Woman of the Year was an MGM production on which Hepburn had a considerable input since she sold the script package to the studio and chose both Tracy as her leading man and George Stevens as director. Hunter told us that she thought Stevens could talk to Tracy about sports. I was partly attracted to the film because of Stevens – who later directed Shane in a manner rather different to his pre-war films. I wondered if the film would have been different if George Cukor had been agreed by Hepburn (she had previously worked with both directors). Stevens had a good pedigree in comedy and Woman of the Year fairly zips along with great dialogue exchanges. Hepburn is Tess Harding – a character based on the leading American female journalist of the period –who is elected ‘Woman of the Year’. Tracy is Sam Craig, the leading sports columnist on the same paper. When they meet they fall for each other immediately and marry quickly despite their obvious differences in background and tastes.
I found the film refreshingly sharp and witty with two great players and a tight script by Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin. The two actors seem to feed off each other. The main interest in the film today is in the ending which legend has it was the result of studio bosses wanting to see the strong assertive woman cut down to size and ‘behaving herself in a man’s world’. The final sequence was not in the script that Hepburn brought to the studio and though its force was slightly ameliorated by the writers, even so it is seen as dating the film because it wouldn’t be acceptable post 1960s feminism etc. I’m not sure if that analysis makes sense (whatever the studio’s intention). Tess has behaved badly (in her treatment of a refugee child). This is mainly because she has lived the life of a wealthy and privileged woman and doesn’t understand a few basics. The final scene sees her trying to appease Sam by making him breakfast in the kitchen of the new apartment he has taken after leaving her. Since she knows nothing about cooking or kitchens, everything goes wrong in a glorious sequence of blunders with untameable food technology. Stevens began his career photographing Laurel and Hardy films for Hal Roach and he organises this well. Tess’ failure to cook is demeaning not because she is doing ‘women’s work’ but because she is a rich young woman who has never done menial work in the home. She isn’t being ‘punished because she is a woman but because she has no contact with the world of the everyday for most people. It’s also true that the costume Kate is wearing is immensely impractical and gets in the way of cooking. Personally I can never see Ms Hepburn as a submissive woman on screen – she always seems to be in charge. Having said that, Allan Hunter told us that the normally assertive Katharine Hepburn was remarkably subservient to Spencer Tracy in their personal relationship. So, ‘that’s acting’ as more than one female star has said.