Jacques Tourneur’s ‘big sky’ western gives us the beauty of Colorado mountains plus stunning color images (originally Technicolor) of his attractive cast: Robert Stack, Virginia Mayo, Ruth Roman. North-South antagonisms break out in Denver City, before the Civil War begins, and Robert Stack’s loner opportunist must choose a side. The WAC’s disc includes four Jacques Tourneur short subjects, with mystery themes.
Great Day in the Morning
Warner Archive Collection
1956 / Color / 1:2 widescreen (Superscope) / 92 min. / Street Date November 26, 2019 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Virginia Mayo, Robert Stack, Ruth Roman, Alex Nicol, Raymond Burr, Leo Gordon, Regis Toomey, Carleton Young, Donald MacDonald, William Phipps, Peter Whitney.
Cinematography: William Snyder
Film Editor: Harry Marker
Original Music: Leith Stevens
Written by Lesser Samuels, from the novel by Robert Hardy Andrews
Produced by Edmund Grainger
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
(Note: none of these images reflect the fine quality of the Blu-ray.)
The motto ‘Great Day in the Morning’ might have been appropriate to describe RKO in 1956, when a last gasp of busy filmmaking made the Hollywood and Culver City lots hum with activity. Some of the hopeful productions that year were Slightly Scarlet, While the City Sleeps, The Conqueror, Back from Eternity and the The Brave One, but none of those became the breakout hit the studio needed. Financial machinations likely would have doomed RKO anyway — Howard Hughes’s business plan seemed intent on running it into the ground. By January of ’57, orphaned RKO productions were being farmed out to other studios for completion and/or distribution.
One of the handsomest, best-produced studio offerings of ’56 was Great Day in the Morning, filmed not in Griffith Park but on beautiful high-country locations in Silverton, Colorado. Producer Edmund Grainger borrowed Virginia Mayo from Warners and Robert Stack from Batjac Productions, and threw in Ruth Roman and a group of top supporting actors. Someone had the sense to hire Jacques Tourneur, fresh from his rather good Walter Mirisch / Joel McCrea western Wichita. Tourneur’s last few pictures hadn’t set the box office on fire, but he was respected for never being boring, and pulling special performances from his actors, like Hedy Lamarr in Experiment Perilous. Tourneur’s earlier western Canyon Passage is a minor classic, and Stars in My Crown still sits a high roost with faith-based film fans. His shows are marked with a gentle, thoughtful approach to character. Andrew Sarris professed a soft spot for this pre-Civil War western, saying that a ‘compensating sensibility’ (?) distinguishes it from Tourneur’s westerns made just previous.
Tourneur is somewhat curbed by a pedestrian screenplay in Great Day in the Morning, but he does well with his actors and creates a marvelous sense of time and place — the weeks before the outbreak of The War Between the States, in Colorado’s officially Union township of Denver City. Gambler, gunslinger and fortune hunter Owen Pentecost, formerly of South Carolina (Robert Stack), is rescued from a tight spot with some Indians by mercantile businesswoman Ann Merry Alaine (Virginia Mayo). She has has almost reached Denver City with her two companions, the Rebel-hating ex-Union soldier Zeff Masterson (Leo Gordon) and the upstanding Stephen Kirby (Alex Nicol), who has a romantic interest in Ann. Once in Denver — which is barely two years old and consists of one street — Ann sets up her new shop while Owen gambles at the saloon of Jumbo Means (Raymond Burr), an unofficial town bully and boss. Jumbo bets his entire saloon, expecting his entertainer Boston Grant (Ruth Roman) to help him cheat. But Boston is attracted to Owen and doesn’t cooperate: Owen takes possession of the saloon. As soon as he sobers up, he announces plans to grubstake all the deadbeat miners in town, for half of what their mines earn. Both Ann and Boston set their caps for Owen, but he’s busy holding off the town’s Rebel-haters, who now include the bitter, vengeful Jumbo. The local minority of Confederate miners are disappointed that Owen isn’t turning patriotic and joining their cause — they want to sneak a fortune in gold out of town, to swell the coffers of Jefferson Davis’s coming rebellion. Father Murphy (Regis Toomey) has difficulty keeping the political factions from beginning hostilities prematurely.
If that’s not enough to occupy Owen, both Ann and Boston express interest in him — angering Kirby and Jumbo. Then Owen sets about semi-adopting little Gary John Lawford (Donald MacDonald of The Kentuckian) and upsetting the women by teaching him how to shoot. Gary wants to kill the man who shot his father … and guess who that is.
Although not the near-perfect slice of western Americana that is Jacques Tourneur’s Canyon Passage, this Superscope adventure has strong qualities. It looks terrific, with William Snyder’s camera painting the screen in rich color and bright contrasts — Eastmancolor originally printed in Technicolor. Producer Grainger and cameraman Snyder were favored by Howard Hughes, enabling Tourneur to make excellent use of those steep wooded valleys in The Centennial State.
We also admire Tourneur’s details of characterization. Even though Zeff Masterson is a borderline bad guy, in his first encounter he’s afforded a flash of a warm smile, something actor Leo Gordon didn’t get to do very often. None of the characters are just types. The leading ladies are self possessed and independent, and too proud to openly compete for Owen. Regis Toomey isn’t ‘just the priest’ and Alex Nicol’s rather formal Kirby is revealed to have a secret purpose for being in Denver City. Although he’s one of Raymond Burr’s standard glowering ogres, Jumbo Means is given an ‘elephant’ theme — he decorates his saloon and hotel with elephant art, and even carries an elephant-shaped good luck charm.
Tourneur navigates the story’s predictable path, adding his offbeat touches. But the pace of events in the second half doesn’t allow him to add his personal brand of gentle poetry. Young Donald MacDonald (later a producer) is not particularly interesting, and neither is the generic clash between the Northern & Southern factions. What’s worse, the screenplay disposes of the Virginia Mayo – Ruth Roman rivalry in the laziest way possible — the dark-haired woman loses out, seemingly on general principle.
Tourneur almost breaks through with Robert Stack’s character. Owen Pentecost is a rather ruthless, selfish go-getter, giving nary an inch with either female love interest and preferring to profit from the miners rather than stand up for Southern rights. Stack gives the role his standard tough-guy persona, all amused charismatic irony. That pose makes him seem like a man of iron in action films (Bullfighter and the Lady, The Last Voyage), but an obsessive in psychodramas (Written on the Wind, The Tarnished Angels). The screenplay simply goes soft in the final act, making Owen both a thoughtful father figure and a self-sacrificing patriot — but not the most interesting of western heroes.
Other movies have centered on a theme of Colorado Gold being smuggled to Dixie. In most of them the North wins, unequivocally. The surprise ending here (filmed partly in Bronson Caverns!) doesn’t have a lot of resonance. Great Day in the Morning is a very good western. It’s just that with its top director, enthused cast and all the critical accolades, we were expecting a classic.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Great Day in the Morning is a beauty in brilliant color and widescreen. Ruth Roman and Virginia Mayo must have been pleased, as both look warm and inviting. The random pickup images I found don’t begin to reflect the stunning hues on screen. (I don’t feel bad, as the WAC couldn’t find good color images for the back of its disc box, either.) The intensity of the color matches other movies from its year — I’m thinking of the noirs Slightly Scarlet and A Kiss Before Dying.
RKO at this time was in such disarray that just getting a picture like Great Day in the Morning into the distribution pipeline on schedule was considered a victory. When it later played on Los Angeles television, I don’t remember if the 16mm prints opened up the Superscope frame to 1:33, or if the widescreen center of the image was pan-scanned. I don’t think either format would look very good.
Warners (Turner) doesn’t give us a trailer, and instead includes four short subjects directed by Jacques Tourner at MGM. All offer (and overstate) some kind of historical mystery. The Ship that Died is about the mystery craft Mary Celeste, The Face Behind the Mask retells the famous ‘Man in the Iron Mask’ tale from 17th century France, and the short Strange Glory is an odd picture about a woman trying to get recognition for a strategy that helped Lincoln win the Civil War. Those three are from 1938. The last entry The Magic Alphabet is from 1942 and stars Stephen McNally as a doctor who invented/discovered/dreamed up the concept of Vitamins. All are old transfers in standard definition, and look satisfactory once the shaky Leo the Lion logos have passed.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Great Day in the Morning
Movie: Good +
Supplements: four Jacques Tourneur short subjects: The Ship that Died, Strange Glory, The Face Behind the Mask, The Magic Alphabet.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: November 10, 2019
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson