CANYON PASSAGE is an exquisitely beautiful pioneer film directed by Jacques Tourneur. Having been overlooked for years by Western film historians, it's a film deserving of a closer look, as it presents an interesting story with excellent performances, outstanding location photography, and memorable music.
When I first saw CANYON PASSAGE eight or nine years ago, it was one of the first couple movies I'd ever seen directed by Tourneur. It was interesting to circle back to CANYON PASSAGE now, having gained an appreciation of Tourneur's artistry thanks to seeing several of his films in the intervening years. I finished CANYON PASSAGE this time even more impressed than I'd been previously. It's an excellent film with many subtle nuances and bits of storytelling which provides more to discover on successive viewings.
The movie tells the story of the people of 1850s Jacksonville, Oregon, particularly Logan Stuart (Dana Andrews), a merchant who also runs a pack mule delivery service. Logan and Lucy Overmire (Susan Hayward) seem attracted to one another, yet Lucy is engaged to Logan's friend George Camrose (Brian Donlevy). Camrose, unfortunately, doesn't emulate Logan's hardworking attitude and instead hopes for financial success at the gaming tables.
Seemingly feeling at loose ends, Logan proposes to pretty Caroline (Patricia Roc), an orphaned English girl who lives with his friends the Dances (Andy Devine and Dorothy Peterson). As time goes on, however, events serve to clarify and change the characters' relationships.
I recall that when I first saw the film, the plot seemed somewhat leisurely and meandering, perhaps because I was expecting it to be more tightly focused on Dana Andrews and Susan Hayward. On second viewing, I was struck that the film is really more a portrait of an entire community, with Logan and Lucy at the forefront. We watch their interactions with each other and their friends and see their characters revealed via a cabin raising and wedding, a brutal fistfight, dealing with a troubled friend, a trial, and an Indian attack.
That said, the characters are portrayed in a very unique and compelling light, particularly Lucy. Lucy has a mature self-possession which is most attractive, and though she plainly enjoys Logan's kiss -- given in full view of George, at his instigation -- she's not a flirt, and she's loyal to George despite concern about his gambling.
Logan, meanwhile, is an ambitious businessman who simultaneously refuses to be overly obsessed with money, even handing over a large sum to a friend in need without a second thought. Logan seems to feel a sense of obligation to Caroline, who lives with a couple who treat her as their daughter but is plainly ready to be married with a home of her own. As Caroline is both sweet and pretty, it's no hardship for Logan to do nice things for Caroline, such as buy her a necklace, but Logan also decides to marry her, perhaps feeling that marriage is the next logical life step he's supposed to take.
Logan's proposal, however, is rather lacking in romance, simply asking Caroline if she likes him enough to marry him. One feels that if they were to follow through, two such nice and responsible characters would make a go of it as a married couple, but after their engagement it gradually becomes clear that Caroline and Logan want different things in life. Caroline wants to be permanently settled, while Logan's growing business may require him to move on.
One of the film's strengths is that for the most part the characters are good people working out interpersonal conflicts. Even George, who cheats miners of their gold and gambles away a small fortune, retains some audience sympathy for much of the film; he doesn't seem so much evil as tormented by some big problems. He knows he shouldn't be stealing the gold dust and does so with a look of guilt and disgust, yet he can't stop himself; his weakness is such that he can't even grab hold of the fresh start offered when a friend wipes the slate clean for him. And while George is attracted to Marta (Rose Hobart), one doesn't doubt his affection for Lucy, who he sincerely describes at one point as "adorable." George is truly a complicated man whose choices inevitably bring trouble upon himself.
Ward Bond and Onslow Stevens play a couple other bad characters whose actions bring conflict to the little settlement. According to Andrews biographer Carl Rollyson, an onscreen brawl between Bond and Andrews resulted in both men receiving stitches!
I was interested to note that Rollyson, in his excellent biography of Dana Andrews, calls CANYON PASSAGE "a neglected masterpiece."
THE WESTERN READER. (Thanks to Blake, I have the 1998 edition.) He makes some interesting comparisons between CANYON PASSAGE and MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946), noting that both films are about the heroine's gradually changing affections against the backdrop of the building of a Western community. For me the film somewhat calls to mind another John Ford film, DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK (1939).
A random side note: on both viewings I was intrigued by the idea of Lucy, a young unmarried woman, traveling unchaperoned with Logan on multi-day trips, even sleeping in the same bedroom at the Dances' cabin. It seems to go against the propriety of the times, yet I suppose it can be logically attributed to the remote area in which they lived.
MILLIONS LIKE US (1943), LOVE STORY (1944), MADONNA OF THE SEVEN MOONS (1945), THE WICKED LADY (1945), and JASSY (1947). She would work with director Jacques Tourneur again when he filmed the Ray Milland thriller CIRCLE OF DANGER (1951) in England.
Hoagy Carmichael, as a storekeeper with his nose in everyone's business, is a key character who provides commentary and passes on critical information from one character to another; more importantly, Carmichael wrote songs for the film which included the classic "Ole Buttermilk Sky." "Ole Buttermilk Sky," cowritten with Jack Brooks, was nominated for the Oscar for Best Song. (It lost to Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer's "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.") This timeless song adds a great deal to the film and causes the viewer to reflect anew on the wealth of talent contributing to films of this era.
The townspeople are played by a large cast including Lloyd Bridges, Fay Holden, Victor Cutler, Stanley Ridges, Halliwell Hobbes, and Ray Teal. Andy Devine's little boys are played by his real-life sons, Tad and Denny.
Watch for Virginia Patton as Liza, the young bride. She was also Ruth Dakin Bailey in Frank Capra's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946). I read an interview with her which was published last Christmas. She'll be 87 next month.
Edward Cronjager. The film shows off not only the beautiful landscapes, but Susan Hayward's lovely wardrobe by Travis Banton.
The Ernest Pascal screenplay for this 92-minute film was based on CANYON PASSAGE by Ernest Haycox. Haycox was also the author of STAGE TO LORDSBURG, which turned into STAGECOACH (1939).
Universal Western Collection VHS tape.
It's also had two DVD releases, in the four-film Classic Western Roundup, Volume 1, which was reissued a few years later as the 4 Movie Marathon: Classic Western Collection. The DVD can be rented from ClassicFlix.
CANYON PASSAGE has been shown recently on the Encore Westerns Channel, with the next showing scheduled on July 21, 2013. At the moment it's also available on the Internet. Additionally, it's been released in Europe on Region 2 DVD.
Update: Thanks to Blake Lucas for the information that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will be screening CANYON PASSAGE on Tuesday, June 4th, in 35mm.