Monday, April 09, 2012

Tonight's Movie: Copper Sky (1957)

COPPER SKY is an interesting little Western distinguished by an appealing performance by Coleen Gray, a memorable musical theme, and the rugged beauty of Kanab, Utah. The film isn't entirely successful, but it kept me engrossed for all of its fast-paced 77 minutes.

Nora Hayes (Coleen Gray), a schoolteacher from Boston, arrives in the small Western town where she is to teach, only to discover the entire town has been decimated by an Indian attack. The wagon driver (Paul Brinegar) who accompanied her from the nearest stagecoach station is soon dead too, leaving Nora very alone in a very scary place...until she comes face to face with inebriated Hack Williams (Jeff Morrow). Williams had been drunk in a jail cell during the attack, unnoticed by the Indians.

Nora and Hack quickly load supplies into the wagon and leave, hoping to find safety, but with Indians on the warpath, it's a long, dangerous trip. The very proper Nora and the whiskey-loving ex-Cavalryman Hack are an odd couple, but as they struggle for survival they gradually come to appreciate one another.

If this story sounds familiar, it seems in some ways to be a loose Western reworking of THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951). Gray is absolutely wonderful; I've seen her in half a dozen films, and this is my favorite of her performances so far, after KISS OF DEATH (1947). Nora finds herself in absolutely appalling circumstances, but she gathers herself together to confront the drunken Hack and try to steer him toward a game plan: "The important thing is that you and I have found ourselves in the midst of a disaster. Something has to be done. What?...Most certainly something has to be done." And, by golly, something is done.

Nora doesn't suffer Hack's drinking gladly, and eventually she risks his wrath to remove the problem. Fortunately Hack has noticed she's a lovely young lady, and even though she confounds him with her nonstop nervous chatter, she starts to get under his skin.

Morrow is the weak link in what is otherwise quite a good little movie. The role needed someone with more charisma underneath the grizzled exterior, still a tough guy but perhaps a little younger; someone like Sterling Hayden would have been perfect. I was completely unfamiliar with Morrow, and when he first entered the picture, with his craggy, wide face, I assumed he was a supporting character. It took a while for it to register that he was the film's hero. It also would have made him more appealing if the character had had to sober up earlier in the story.

Morrow does have some good scenes late in the film, as the newly sober Hack, though in each case Gray is a key factor in the scene's success. The first is an action scene which takes place after Nora has been ranting about the evils of drink, suddenly confessing how alcohol impacted her own life; Nora is oblivious that while she's talking nonstop, Hack has heard threatening sounds. The entire sequence unfolds in a very interesting manner; Nora has repeatedly been confronted with bodies, but now she must accept the reality of kill or be killed, and it changes her perspective.

The second memorable scene takes place when Nora and Hack pray together; it's extremely touching as he searches for the words and she helps him along. It's special to watch her face in this scene.

Finally, there's an unexpected romantic scene in a river which is absolutely lovely. Although Morrow does well in these scenes, I felt that he was kind of along for the ride, in the shadow of Gray's glowing performance. With another actor who had a little more to offer himself, and just a few tweaks to the story, this film might have gone to a higher level and become much better known. Still, I felt like I'd stumbled across something pretty interesting when I watched this relatively unknown film, and I recommend that Westerns fans give it a try.

Much of the film was shot in Kanab, Utah, which was also the location of WESTWARD THE WOMEN (1951), due out on DVD this week. The scenes where Hack and Nora make camp at night are noticeably shot on a soundstage, but the rest of the movie has an authentic open-air feel, filmed in the great outdoors.

The title theme music, by Raoul Kraushaar, effectively sets the mood and is used throughout the film.

COPPER SKY was produced and directed by Charles Marquis Warren, who also directed the Joel McCrea Westerns TROOPER HOOK (1957) and CATTLE EMPIRE (1958). The screenplay by Eric Norden was based on a story by Robert Stabler. The black and white cinematography was by Brydon Baker.

COPPER SKY, which has also been shown in the past under the title THE FAR WEST, can be seen via Netflix streaming.


Blogger James Corry said...

Hi Laura! I have an old VHS copy of "Copper Sky" taken from the Encore Westerns Channel several years ago, so I'm familiar with the question is, since I don't have Netflix Streaming (and I think I probably should get it)did Netflix show "Copper Sky" in it's original RegalScope width? As I'm sure you know, RegalScope was the "B" unit at 20th Century-Fox doing (basically) low-budget Westerns, War movies and Science-fiction ("Kronos" also starring Jeff Morrow is one.). The "A" unit at Fox used the moniker "CinemaScope" on their product....And since these films were made during the 50's when widescreen was in it's youth (and heyday) the ONLY way to see them is in that process. The Encore Westerns Channel showed "Copper Sky" panned-and-scanned and it looked pretty awful.....


7:41 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Brad!

No, unfortunately what Netflix has is an Encore Westerns-style showing with the opening credits in beautiful widescreen and then it goes to the fullscreen picture after the credits. There were some things noticeably cut off in some scenes (I remember a head suddenly half in the frame in the last scene) although it looked quite fine in others.

What's interesting, though, is for a "little" movie with a weak leading man, I haven't been able to get this film out of my head since I saw it. It has really stood out to me among some good recent viewing...I even went back and replayed some of the key scenes the next day. It was a very absorbing story, the "good book" kind of tale which causes one to think about the characters and "what happened next"; and Coleen Gray's performance was as fresh and different as it was in KISS OF DEATH a decade earlier. Love how she calls him "Mr. Williams" even after he's kissed her. :) Watching her in the last few scenes in particular, such as those I cited in my post, is to watch a very special actress at work.

I hope at some point there will be a Fox MOD DVD program -- with prints as good as the Universal Vault DVD releases. I would snap up COPPER SKY to own in a heartbeat if it became available.

Best wishes,

9:10 AM  
Blogger James Corry said...

The "RegalScope" pictures are in a kind of "no man's land" of home video. The "Twilight Time" video label is releasing 20th Century-Fox "classic" (read: OLD)CinemaScope and other films to home video, but at the rate of one per month. And they "get what they get" from the studio. If the film hasn't been re-mastered for widescreen......then what we've got is what we're stuck with. And there were a LOT of RegalScope pictures made. I'd love to see "Copper Sky" in it's original widescreen ratio......but with what we've already gotten, I'll never say NEVER......BTW I LOVE that title: "Copper Sky" and it DID have a very haunting main-title song...

Jeff Morrow was usually associated with science-fiction films of the 50's, although he did do a great turn as the embittered Roman soldier in "The Robe"....but he turned in excellent work in films such as Universal's "This Island Earth" (playing a benevolent alien) and "The Creature Walks Among Us" (for my money the best of the "Creature" trilogy)and the granite-jawed scientist in the RegalScope cult-classic "Kronos." I think with a strong director Morrow could do excellent work. I've always liked him, but I agree that he was either miscast or given no real direction in "Copper Sky" one of his lesser efforts....


2:56 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Brad,

At this point I guess I'd be happy even if all they put out was a pan & scan, just so I could own it...

Thanks very much for filling in some background info on Jeff Morrow. The other night I emailed Toby of 50 Westerns from the 50s and asked "Who is Jeff Morrow and how did he become the leading man of that movie?" LOL. You answered at least some of that question, thank you! It seemed like such random casting.

This movie otherwise had a lot going for it -- agree the title is great. The theme song has been playing in my mind for 48 hours it but I'm ready for it to stop!

Best wishes,

3:23 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

I don't know why exactly--maybe it was a kind of obvious replay of THE AFRICAN QUEEN as a Western or just my mood--but when I saw this back in the 50s it was kind of dull for me. That's a long time ago could be better than I thought. At least I saw it in RegalScope.

But although I agree with you about Coleen Gray (and if you've only seen her in half a dozen movies you have a lot to look forward to) I don't agree about Jeff Morrow and am glad Brad spoke up for him a little. I don't remember him as being a charismatic hero in COPPER SKY and you may be right about that, but he is impressive in other movies, among them some of those Brad mentioned. Also would strongly suggest you try to catch Douglas Sirk's Irish adventure movie CAPTIAN LIGHTFOOT with Rock Hudson and Barbara Rush. Jeff Morrow is the third star as Rush's father and has a lot of dash and authority in that movie

12:14 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I hope you get a chance to take another look at COPPER SKY, Blake, I'd enjoy hearing your thoughts. This one had a big impact on me which doesn't seem to have faded a couple days later. :) After reading your comments and Brad's I've gone back and rewatched a couple more scenes (no hardship, given how much I liked it!). paying attention specifically to Morrow's performance. He's growing on me a little with repeat viewing and familiarity, although he still seems a bit old and craggy to have been Gray's leading man. I would sure like to know what that odd couple of characters did after the end credits rolled -- one of the marks of a good movie.

It's kind of amusing, given that I thought Sterling Hayden would have been perfect casting for COPPER SKY -- I remembered he *did* make a Western with Coleen Gray, ARROW IN THE DUST (1954), and started watching it during my lunch today. Only got about 20 minutes in but so far, so good, with a colorful performance by Tom Tully as a grizzled scout. He's a wonderful character actor.

I've added CAPTAIN LIGHTFOOT to my "to see" list, thanks! NIGHTMARE ALLEY with Gray and Tyrone Power is on my "short list" of films to see this year.

Thanks, as always, for your feedback!

Best wishes,

2:06 PM  

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