David O. Selznick’s absurdly over-cooked western epic is a great picture, even if much of it induces a kind of hypnotic, mouth-hanging-open disbelief. Is this monument to the sex appeal of Jennifer Jones, Kitsch in terrible taste, or have Selznick and his army of Hollywood talents found a new level of hyped melodramatic harmony? It certainly has the star-power, beginning with Gregory Peck as a cowboy rapist who learned his bedside manners from Popeye’s Bluto. It’s all hugely enjoyable.
Duel in the Sun
KL Studio Classics
1946 / Color / 1:37 flat Academy / 144 min. / Special Edition / Street Date August 15, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring Jennifer Jones, Gregory Peck, Joseph Cotten, Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, Walter Huston, Butterfly McQueen, Charles Bickford, Tilly Losch.
Cinematography Lee Garmes, Ray Rennahan and Harold Rosson
Production Designer J. McMillan Johnson
Film Editor Hal C. Kern, John Saure and William H. Ziegler
Original Music Dimitri Tiomkin
Written by Niven Busch, from his book, adapted by Oliver H.P. Garrett, Ben Hecht and, uncredited David O. Selznick
Produced by David O. Selznick
Directed by King Vidor and, uncredited, Otto Brower, William Dieterle, Sidney
Franklin, William Cameron Menzies, David O. Selznick, Josef von Sternberg
Some movies age well, others don’t. I have a feeling that, even when David O. Selznick’s Duel in the Sun was new, at least some audiences must have thought it a bad-taste head-scratcher. Over-produced in every respect, this epic Big Ranch western is a clear case of a slight story hyped beyond all reason. Yet it’s compulsively watchable. For technique and art-craft, it can also be exciting and beautiful.
How to explain the existence of this movie? Consider it David O. Selznick’s Taj Mahal, an attempt to do for his new wife Jennifer Jones what Scarlett O’Hara did for Vivien Leigh. It must have seemed easy enough to just throw an unprecedented bundle of money at the screen. Selznick’s stab at duplicating the success of his Gone With the Wind in the Western genre is one of the weirdest epics of all time, an undeniably entertaining mix of powerful filmmaking and witless clichés. Released with a saturation booking scheme, it reportedly became one of the most profitable Westerns ever. Duel was chided by the public as Lust In The Dust, in reaction to heroine Pearl Chavez’ oversexed histrionics. There’s nothing unsubtle about it: scenes alternate between compelling emotion and jaw-dropping crudity without a chance to catch one’s breath. Modern audiences laugh uncontrollably at excessive scenes, only to applaud an impressive moment a few minutes later.
Selznick’s apparent aim was to out-do every western ever made. Epic destinies play out on the vast Texas plain: orphaned half-breed Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones) comes to Spanish Bit, a Ponderosa-like cattle ranch run by despotic ex- Senator Jackson McCandless (Lionel Barrymore). There she finds kindness in the heart of Jackson’s Southern-born wife Laura Belle (Lillian Gish). But Pearl’s innocent/erotic presence splits the empire. Ivy-league son Jesse (Joseph Cotten) is disillusioned when his malevolent brother Lewton (played against type by Gregory Peck) openly seduces Pearl. Both sons are forced to leave the ranch, Pearl agonizes in sexual self-loathing (“Trash! Trash! Trash!”), and the picture self-destructs in an orgy of blazing Technicolor sunsets, bombastic music, and vengeful shootouts. Oh yes, and Orson Welles provides narrative bookends!
Duel in the Sun’s plot and structure is proof that Selznick learned all the wrong lessons from his fevered micromanagement of GWTW. The simple story is overproduced in ways that add little to the overall impact. Several directors quit over producer interference and Selznick kept scores of writers on hand to constantly re-do scenes. Without the tempering aid of GWTW’s William Cameron Menzies (or perhaps, the calm behind-the-scenes story sense of Val Lewton) Selznick’s endless second-guessing and book-length memos ran riot.
The film’s jumble of rewrites and reshoots is such that some scenes seem invented just to hold the plotline together. An insignificant cowboy character named Sid (Scott McKay) keeps showing up in the final act to deliver dumb messages and awkward exposition. Pearl is molested by the rape-crazy Lewton in at least three almost identical scenes; in one of them her graduation from protesting waif to brazen harlot is an on-camera transformation comparable to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or The Wolf Man. The whole picture has that kind of producer-induced overkill that screams, ‘where’s my Oscar nomination?’ When Pearl runs Scarlett-like down a hill from the ranch house, you can see Selznick’s desperation to make lightning strike twice.
Selznick’s racial attitudes haven’t improved, unfortunately. Butterfly McQueen is back as a twitter-pated housemaid, an even more exaggerated character than before. Worse, Pearl’s Father and Selznick’s spokesman for lost values and decency Scott Chavez (Herbert Marshall), states at his trial that his real crime was not murder, but taking a Mexican wife and thereby despoiling his family name. Invited by the rather ditzy Laura Belle to steer Pearl in the right moral direction, Walter Huston chews up the scenery as The Sinkiller, a frontier revivalist. He warns Pearl away from the evils of the flesh while obviously lusting after her himself. Pearl Chavez may begin as an innocent, but her ‘hot’ Latin blood all but guarantees that she reveal herself as a wanton tramp: “Trash! Trash! Trash!”
Even when the characters make little sense, the acting in Duel in the Sun is excellent. Jennifer Jones was never better as Pearl, whether writhing in sexual frustration or smashing herself onto jagged rocks for the bloody finale. Gregory Peck’s villainy goes completely against his usual underplayed decency and is great fun to watch. In the similar The Big Country a decade later Peck seems anemic by comparison. Joseph Cotten hasn’t much to do considering that this film is his second romantic pairing with Jones. Of the rest of the cast Lillian Gish is a standout in a part that might be an extension of her character in Birth of a Nation. Played in silent-movie expressionist mode, her isolated scenes make a good case for ‘primitive’ acting in a decade of more modern styles.
On the other hand, the presence of Gish shows that David O. Selznick’s idea of entertainment hadn’t progressed since the silent era. From this point on his creative overstatement and production meddling ruined or crippled movie after movie. His next picture Portrait of Jennie is a masterpiece, but only if one can wade through its repetitive ‘poetic’ preambles and overdone appeals for sentiment.
The epic western overflows with sidebar characters in isolated narrative pockets. Charles Bickford has a nothing role as an honest cowpoke who isn’t in on the joke, the joke being that he’ll be a dead duck soon after declaring his love for Pearl Chavez. Fans of Rosemary’s Baby probably won’t recognize the evil Adrian Marcato (Sidney Blackmer): he plays the lover of Pearl Chavez’ mother (Tilly Losch) in the giant barroom dance scene that begins Duel. The fiery dance is a standout set-piece. The smoke-filled saloon has a bar the size of a tennis court, and the bar-top is the stage for Tilly’s dance. It’s more opulent than Barnum and Bailey’s Circus, yet located in some nameless ‘town down on the border.’ Former Broadway star Losch appeared in only a couple of movies; her impressive dance to Dimitri Tiomkin’s ‘savage’ Mexican music ends with a push-in to a huge upside-down close-up.
As soon as we film students learned that Josef von Sternberg was one of the many name directors that worked on DITS we assumed that this atmospheric opening was his work. But according to the records this isn’t so; von Sternberg mainly helped stylize the incredible close-ups of Selznick’s beloved JJ. Although scholars attribute Duel’s basic vitality and most of its key scenes to master moviemaker King Vidor, the dance opening was reportedly directed by Vidor’s replacement William Dieterle.
Elsewhere reigns giddy chaos. The opening narration is a mawkish jumble that only a pro like Orson Welles could navigate. Savant prefers to remember Randy Cook’s alliterative version, read in his best Orson Welles voice: “…and Pearl Chavez, the half-breed from South of the Border, so early to bloom and so early to die, keeping a reckless rendezvous with her Laughing Cowboy Lover Lewt.” The final love-hate gundown is one of the most over-cooked camp highlights in the history of movies. For some unfathomable reason, King Vidor more or less remade this ending seven years later for his Ruby Gentry. In that movie, Charlton Heston is the lucky lover-boy gunned down by rifle totin’ Jennifer.
Gregory Peck looks like he’s having a hell of a good time being such a wicked cuss. Even though the truly stupid Lewt McCandless never seems threatening, he is mighty ‘spirited’ when repeatedly raping Jennifer Jones, getting his face scratched in the process. Peck’s real highlight is a must-see scene in which he tames an uncooperative horse. It swings him like a school bell, but Peck doesn’t let go. That’s of course a comment on the brute force Lewt uses to bend Pearl to his will.
More than a few critics have commented on what seems a particularly creepy Svengali-Trilby relationship between Selznick and Jones. The mental image is of St. Bernadette being lured away from an age-appropriate husband by an all-controlling monster of a producer, who then decides that she’s going to reach the pinnacle of stardom by playing a sex-crazed ‘exotic’ in a giant western soap opera. Poor Pearl protests, but the story’s message is that she’s a hot-blooded non-white savage that wants to be raped by Lewt. Jennifer Jones is always better than good. It’s just that the lumpy screenplay stretches character credibility to the breaking point. By the end things simply become hilarious, with poor Pearl switching from murderous rage, to anguished passion, and back to murderous rage at least two times each. It’s Very Enjoyable Nonsense, writ large.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Duel in the Sun is everything I hoped it would be. As it was filmed in 3-Strip Technicolor, a full digital restoration of DITS would cost millions, the kind of money that can be found for the likes of Gone With the Wind, not a show that’s going to sell a few thousand disc units. Lucky for us, a rather good composite color negative was made for the picture long ago; it’s what was used for the good DVD transfer released by Anchor Bay in 2000. Its color overall is a good approximation of Technicolor richness, with its deep blacks and suffused, saturated hues. I’ve seen the show in an original 35mm print, where it dazzles to the degree that other considerations no longer seem important. The new Blu-ray replicates the feel most of the time.
The only flaws are those that have been there all along, built into the composite negative. When Pearl Chavez arrives in the town of Spanish bit, the 3-strip registration goes haywire for a spell, causing the red stripes on Pearl’s serape to jump off and start dancing on their own. Much later, several minutes of the picture are a little subdued in color and density. Not seriously so, just enough to make them less dynamic than the rest of the movie. Besides that, it’s All Good. All those obsessive close-ups of Jennifer Jones, painted in brown-face and flashing those bright eyes, are incredible — we wonder if she had to take days off to rest her eyes from Kleig light burn. Happily, the abundant optical effects that Selznick piles on do not go dull or grainy, but look as sharp and startling as early work from Walt Disney. This is a good way to see this picture — the added detail and stability of HD restore most of the film’s punch and (goofy) majesty.
I’m often asked if a Blu-ray is worth an upgrade. In this case it’s a big yes. The old Anchor Bay disc does have some extras you might not want to lose. But if you bought the inferior old MGM release there’s no comparison. MGM’s audio track was so badly distorted, the disc was a total wash.
The audio is stronger too, but I’m guessing that it is still somewhat limited by the composite track elements used. Unless I’m missing a title, this appears to be Dimitri Tiomkin’s first full-bore Big Sky western music score after William Wyler’s The Westerner, and the one that launched him on a twenty-year run as the prime music man for Big Sky epics – an All-American genre defined by a Russian-born composer. This is the Roadshow version, which has a full ten minutes of Prelude up front and exit music at the end. Tiomkin’s powerful and emotional score is one of the reasons the movie is so pleasant to repeat-view, but his main themes are repeated so many times in the movie itself that the Prelude, and the shorter Overture that follows it, seem rather too much in repeated viewings.
The Overture retains Selznick’s concession to the censors, a truly stupid disclaimer speech. In 1946 the bluenoses clobbered both Selznick’s Duel and the Zanuck production Forever Amber for their respective promiscuous, unrepentant heroines. On many prints, the opening music of Amber is also marred by an added voiceover disclaimer (para): “Being the story of a bad woman who paid for her sins!”
The narration here in Duel reinforces the retribution idea, and then begins a ramble, pegging Walter Huston’s Sinkiller preacher as an aberrant charlatan, of the kind that never fooled ‘real’ Christians. This kissing up to the Bible Thumpers reads as total cowardice on Selznick’s part. It’s also bad logic. Lillian Gish’s Laura Belle is Duel in the Sun’s only devout character. If the narration is correct, and ‘real’ Christians were never taken in by Sinkiller types, then Laura Belle must be an un-Christian dupe.
This time around Kino has added a welcome commentary from author and professor Gaylyn Studlar, who combines academic precision with historical insights and personal enthusiasm. She’s written books about images of women in Hollywood movies, which would seem the perfect background to comment on Jennifer Jones’ audacious Pearl Chavez. We learn about Selznick, the film’s crazy production, the troubles he had getting it into theaters — he had to form his own distribution company — and his disappointment when it didn’t sweep the Oscars. Ms. Studlar offers some Freudian analysis and points out something that should be obvious — Pearl’s mother is not only Mexican, but a Native American Indian as well. Short of reading three books about the fascinating, infuriating David O. Selznick, this is a good way to find out about the forces and personalities behind this picture.
Cecelia, Carey and Anthony Peck appear in a featurette that gives an understandably Peck-centric view of Duel in the Sun and Selznick in the ’40s. Kino follows up with a selection of teasers and exhibitor tags for the film, followed by two full trailers for other Kino westerns. The original cover art bears three star portraits. For some reason Jennifer Jones’ image reminds me strongly of another actress . . . Virna Lisi, maybe?
We’re very happy that these Selznick pictures are coming out on Blu-ray, but in the case of Duel in the Sun, Portrait of Jennie and perhaps a few others, we wish that some benign rights holder would someday dig into the Selznick vaults and bring out the goodies: alternate mixes for the audio, etc. DITS reportedly had several alternate cuts and hotter sex scenes — the waterhole scene was more daring, if I remember correctly.
Duel in the Sun has always been an acquired taste, and in the movies is one place where grandiose excess for its own sake can be a very good thing. This can be a hugely enjoyable show.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Duel in the Sun Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good +
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Audio commentary by author and film historian Gaylen Studlar; interview with Cecilia Peck, Carey Peck and Anthony Peck, trailers.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 14, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson