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Canyon Passage

by Glenn Erickson Feb 22, 2020

This great, unheralded western is divorced from the usual concerns of law and order and gunslinger protocol. As in most every film by Jacques Tourneur, we feel a strong empathy for characters that behave like real people working out real problems. The Oregon Territory is pioneered by imperfect people — opportunists, knaves and hopeful dreamers — all rich in personality. Dana Andrews and Susan Hayward lead a large cast in a tale with just as much conflict and violence as the next western, but with an integrity one can feel. The icing on the cake is the presence of ‘troubadour’ Hoagy Carmichael and his beautiful music.


Canyon Passage
Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1946 / Color / 1:37 flat Academy / 92 min. / Street Date March 10, 2020 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Dana Andrews, Susan Hayward, Brian Donlevy, Patricia Roc, Ward Bond, Hoagy Carmichael, Fay Holden, Stanley Ridges, Lloyd Bridges, Andy Devine, Victor Cutler, Rose Hobart, Halliwell Hobbes, James Cardwell, Onslow Stevens, Tad Devine, Denny Devine, Frank Ferguson, Gene Roth, Harry Shannon, Ray Teal, Peter Whitney, Chief Yowlachie.
Cinematography: Edward Cronjager
Film Editor: Milton Carruth
Special Photography: David S. Horsley
Original Music: Frank Skinner
Written by Ernest Pascal from the novel by Ernest Haycox
Produced by Walter Wanger
Directed by
Jacques Tourneur

 

In John Ford’s sentimental westerns about ‘planting a garden’ in the desert, some soldier or farmer is always staring off into the future, as if posing for a future postage stamp. Then there’s Howard Hawks’ professional camaraderie movies, dominated by guys’ guys and guy’s gals, all of the same Hawksian stripe. Unless we’re talking about his endearingly Utopian The Big Sky, nothing matters to Hawks except the male unit. Change Hawks’ pilots or lawmen to whale hunters or Blackwater mercenaries, and his only concern would be ‘will the audience buy it?’

Well, other people made Westerns too. For my money, some of the less celebrated directors have just as much to say about the frontier urge and the American character. The great Jacques Tourneur made fairly generic town-taming westerns for Joel McCrea and Walter Mirisch, but his superlative 1946 Canyon Passage is something unique, an epic in a compact package. Starting in the mud of Portland, Oregon, the show gives us the glory and the wonder of a messy frontier, where even the social order is improvised, ad hoc. The early arrivals are rough-hewn types trying to get their footing in a new land. The travels of our hero, played by that perfectly neutral everyman Dana Andrews, show us what’s happening in the big city, in a mining town, and on farms. The pioneers are a mix of the good, bad and ugly. Everything is a gamble, and all must accept risk and danger as a basic challenge of being alive.

 

Jacques Tourneur doesn’t just direct, he somehow shapes and forms his stories and characters in humanist, sensitive ways. His Val Lewton horror films brought scares into the lives of ordinary people, not crypt-keepers and morgue attendants. His Experiment Perilous tells the same story as Gaslight but with much more ambiguity. His Berlin Express regards a divided Berlin with a sadly misplaced optimism, and his Stars in My Crown almost solves the problem of the ‘faith-based’ western. And of course there’s Tourneur’s superlative noir Out of the Past, which takes a lushly romantic, fatalistic view of what Andrew Sarris called the ‘annihilating melodrama.’ Canyon Passage gives us twenty vivid characters. There are definite villains and good guys, but also a wide spectrum of complainers, miscreants and hopeful folk in between. Everybody seems to be living a life that continues beyond the edges of the screen.

Westerns put a face on the American character, and several from the immediate postwar years seem to be assessing the State of the Nation. The glossy MGM musical western The Harvey Girls has ‘Victory’ stamped all over it: as foretold in the stage musical Oklahoma!, an America scrubbed clean and guilt-free is enjoying a fresh new start. Canyon Passage is a bit more tentative about the glorious opportunities ahead for America in the Oregon Territory. Optimistic settlers have hope for a bright future, even after suffering terrible setbacks. Our hero is in a big rush to grow his business, even though he’s over-extended. But others have not found themselves in the new land, and the lawlessness also provides opportunities for outright criminals. This ‘American microcosm’ setup also applies to a much later revisionist western set in the Oregon Territory, Robert Altman’s misanthropic McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Tourneur and producer Walter Wanger’s more optimistic tale was also filmed in beautiful forest locations.

 

In rainy Portland in 1856, mule-train proprietor Logan Stuart (Dana Andrews) is almost robbed by a thief that he thinks might be Honey Bragg (Ward Bond), a thorough blaggard from Logan’s business hub, the gold town Jacksonville. On his way home Logan accompanies Lucy Overmire (Susan Hayward), the prospective bride of his best friend, the express office clerk George Camrose (Brian Donlevy). Lucy seems just as interested in Logan. They stop off at the farm of Ben Dance (Andy Devine), where Logan makes Lucy jealous by courting Caroline Marsh (Patricia Roc). The young Englishwoman recently lost her father and new farm, but wants to try again. In Jacksonville Logan prepares to expand his business (more mules) to take on a big job. Logan has a number of problems beyond keeping his customers satisfied. He must defend his employee Vane Blazier (Victor Cutler) from Honey Bragg. Vane is unhappy because he is in love with Caroline as well. Logan tries to help his pal George, who is secretly ruining himself by gambling with gold dust he’s embezzled. Logan goes forward with a life & death fight against Honey Bragg, because the community demands it. Then Bragg commits a crime against the local Indians, precipitating bloody Indian murder raids. Everybody suffers, and the community looks to Logan to lead them.

Oregon seems to be the place of opportunity, where an enterprising fellow can survive failures and keep reinventing himself. Ever optimistic, Logan Stuart won’t turn a job down — his clerk (Halliwell Hobbes) complains that he’s always overextended. But Logan is a rock of commitment, a quality that wins him respect in all quarters. The farmers love him, and both the homebody Caroline and the adventurous Lucy think he’s the most desirable man in the territory. Even Johnny and Neal (Lloyd Bridges and Ray Teal), the ringleaders of Jacksonville’s ‘legal vigilantes,’ realize that Logan has the charisma to stop an extralegal lynching.

 

On this frontier nothing is finished, and almost nobody’s fate is settled. The two women infatuated with Logan know better than to make demands of him; his commitment to Caroline doesn’t take into account that he’s a rover and that she wants to settle on a farm. George’s charm disguises an essential instability. Addicted to gambling, he seems unconcerned that these pioneers hang thieves without benefit of a real trial. George is quietly undermining himself. He isn’t even faithful to Lucy, who doesn’t know of his overtures to Marta (Rose Hobart), the wife of the saloon owner/gambler Jack Lestrade (Onslow Stevens).

With no official law in charge, moral rules are hard to pin down. The legal niceties are improvised as needed. It’s obvious that Honey Bragg won’t stop trying to murder him, but Logan can’t make himself kill Bragg in their big fight. He could have dispatched Bragg with his neighbors’ blessing, a fact pointed out by the pragmatic Lucy, contradicting normal Production Code rigidity. But Logan flouts the law in another way, springing a pal from jail based on nothing but loyalty and a desire to help Lucy. When she moves to beg his intervention, Logan responds with the slightest of expressions: ‘I’ll take care of this.’

In the middle of this dynamic are two very special characters. The first draws our full attention despite having fewer than two minutes on screen. The aforementioned Marta Lestrade sympathizes with the way her husband fleeces George in cards, but rebuffs George’s illicit advances. George says he just wants to be friends, and Marta responds the film’s best dialogue line (and life lesson):

“Why can’t you be a friend to yourself?” 

That nugget of wisdom acknowledges that most ‘bad guys’ are really just weak. Perhaps the left-wing producer Walter Wanger was responsible for casting the haunted-looking Rose Hobart; the HUAC would put an end to her career just a couple of years later. The original Julie in Borzage’s 1930 Liliom, Rose’s career dimmed after her major role in the Mamoulian classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Tourneur’s delicate touch makes her small part here something precious. Film Students may know Rose Hobart as the subject of a famous avant-garde film by Joseph Cornell, Rose Hobart.

Audiences loved the film’s other special character. The hangdog troubadour Hi Linnit is played by Hoagy Carmichael, the singer and songwriter (‘Stardust’) already famous for singing with Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not. Thanks to Carmichael, this film’s musical interludes are a highlight, not a cue for patrons to head for the theater’s concession stand. Written with Jack Brooks, the film’s signature tune Ole Buttermilk Sky became one of Carmichael’s biggest hits.

 

Hi Linnet serves as the film’s good luck charm, with reservations: some of his actions are morally debatable. Hi snoops through windows, and becomes something of a snitch without prejudice. He’s the prime accuser of George Camrose, as he’s seen George steal gold from the miners, including a miner soon found murdered. A mellow independent thinker, Hi stays apart from the flow of society; he seems tailored to Hoagy Carmichael’s quiet, thoughtful public persona. At the end of 1946 Carmichael would appear in his third classic role, as the soulful saloon owner/pianist in The Best Years of Our Lives.

 

The screenplay by Ernest Pascal doesn’t sidestep the fact that the white settlers have simply stolen the land and will soon push the Indians out. In the early 1870s, Captain Jack will rebel against the whites in Oregon, and be branded a terrorist. Canyon Passage’s third-act crisis begins when the local tribe decides to wipe away the white infestation, after an outrage by Honey Bragg. They cut a bloodier swath than that seen in the similar Drums Along the Mohawk. Nobody is spared, not mothers or babies or even the happy new couple whose house-raising had recently been a community event. (Note that the beaming bride is played by Virginia Patton, George Bailey’s adorable sister-in-law in It’s a Wonderful Life.)

With the exception of the Indian raid most of Canyon Passage’s killings are kept off-screen. The big fight in the bar is brutal and bloody, but elsewhere the movie is much more reticent, with the fates of several characters discovered only after the fact. Even the violence speaks to character. As if discovering how low he can sink, George sneaks up behind a drunken miner getting a drink in a stream. The composition tells us what’s going to happen next.

The film’s ‘moral compass’ is fickle. Had Logan not been so ethical, Honey Bragg wouldn’t have survived to cause the havoc that destroys the whole community. Ward Bond played several kinds of characters well but excelled as stupid thugs. His railroad cop in the pre-Code Wild Boys of the Road (correction, Hupto) is also a brute rapist. Tourneur cuts as much slack for Bragg as possible. In the big fight Bragg temporarily loses his sight, and seems disoriented. But later on his lack of decency becomes total — he shoots two horses just out of meanness.

We like Dana Andrews’ character because he’s not a typical frontier superman. Compare Logan Stuart to Kirk Douglas’s trail scout in the ’50s pioneer opus The Indian Fighter: Kirk courts a girlfriend inside the army fort, while skinny-dipping with a hotsy Indian maiden in a crystal mountain stream. Everything works out for the convenience of the naturally superior, bulletproof Kirk. By contrast, Dana Andrews’ central hero doesn’t have all the answers. He’s a gent all the way, but he doesn’t read the women in his life well, and he misplaces his loyalty in George Camrose.

We’re particularly impressed with the non-Hollywood resolution to the romantic story. The exigencies of life on the frontier impose different rules on marrying couples. After the big Indian raid, Logan’s fianceé pushes him away: she needs a man who will settle on the land with her. Seeing Logan shake hands with Vane Blazier in long shot, gives us hope that masculine decency has a future.

As directed by Jacques Tourneur, Brian Donlevy leaves his jut-jawed, hard-charging persona behind; losing his moral compass has taken the fight out of George Camrose. George retains his stubborn composure, but little else. He wants the good things in life without putting forward any effort, and Logan’s trust and Lucy’s love don’t mean a lot to him either. George just can’t be a better friend to himself.

 

Susan Hayward’s struggle to get somewhere in Hollywood was just beginning to pay off. She’s perfect casting here — Lucy Overmire is a daring adventuress perfectly suited to the chance-taking Logan. She needs no advance notice to take off on a 300-mile mule-packing trek. It’s obvious that Hayward had what it took back in 1942’s I Married a Witch. Saddled with the thankless role of the spiteful girlfriend who doesn’t get Fredric March, Ms. Hayward’s hilarious furor is one of the best reasons to see the movie again. Just one year after this western, she would be nominated for her first acting Oscar.

Canyon Passage satisfies because we believe in the spirit of its characters. That doesn’t hold quite as well for Tourneur’s somewhat similar western from ten years later, Great Day in the Morning with Robert Stack, Virginia Mayo and Ruth Roman. Its atypical storyline doesn’t sidestep violent confrontation clichés as well, and it’s not quite as pleasing.

The fade-out sees another hopeful trek beginning. Hoagy Carmichael’s Hi Linnet serves one more function, as a chaperone for the happy curtain-call exit on horseback. The final burst of music introduces the famous vocal lyric for Ole Buttermilk Sky, leaving Canyon Passage with a very positive vibe.


 

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Canyon Passage is a good encoding of this Technicolor production, if only because previous editions had much more serious problems. VHS and DVD copies suffered from a contrasty picture and subdued color, and I think the sound was distorted as well.

This Blu-ray clears up the audio issues nicely and does a lot toward improving the image, which appears to be the same Eastman composite negative made long ago from the original Technicolor matrices. New transfer technology enables more contrast latitude, bringing out dark areas of the frame without blowing out light areas.The image is still not ideal, as whites often go little yellowish and greens overall are weak. I’m more than satisfied, because for me the imperfect color no longer gets in the way of enjoyment. The image is a little less sharp in shots with dissolve transitions. One very odd scene is a stroll at sunset that looks like rear projection work; the red sky is so flat and strange, we’d almost believe that one of the color registers was left out when the composite negative was made.

Tourneur uses more camera angles than the average Technicolor feature. That’s where the budget went, on the remote location shoot in Oregon. The vast exteriors are framed in ways that convince us we’re out in the middle of a forested nowhere. Portland is a muddy street and Jacksonville is laid out on a steep hill, to be near the gold diggings. One fine sequence is perhaps the best filmic demonstration of how a community builds a homesteader’s cabin. From marking where the walls go to nailing a horseshoe over the door for good luck, it takes just one day.

 

Producer Walter Wanger made good use of Universal’s facilities, turning effects ace David Horsley loose on the mattes and opticals and giving composer Frank Skinner one of his best musical opportunities. The underscore in this show is lovely, weaving bits of the Hoagy Carmichael songs into the mix here and there. Pieces of Ole Buttermilk Sky are hinted at several times, which makes the song’s full revelation at the finale seem all the more delightful.

The disc commentary is by Toby Roan, who has been heard to good effect on films from The Last Command to Lisbon. For Canyon Passage he spends most of his track on a run-down for every last one of the dozens of actors in ensemble support, everyone from Lloyd Bridges to Andy Devine — and Devine’s two young sons, who aren’t bad. Toby reacts as we do to the film’s very different opening Universal logo. Was this flat-card artwork something that appeared just before the switch to Universal-International?

A trailer is included. Apparently all that could be found for the cover illustration was some unattractive two-color artwork.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Canyon Passage
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Audio commentary by Toby Roan, trailers.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
February 17, 2020
(6211pass)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.