Thursday, November 17, 2011

Tonight's Movie: Operation Haylift (1950)

The winter of 1948-49 was the worst in Nevada in roughly six decades, leaving millions of grazing sheep and cattle stranded in deep snow and cut off from food. Many animals died, and the rest were in danger of starving to death. The U.S. Air Force saved the day with "Operation Haylift," dropping millions of tons of alfalfa near the stranded herds.

That story is told in the movie OPERATION HAYLIFT, a docudrama filmed entirely on location around Ely, Nevada, shortly after the actual events took place. Actor Joe Sawyer, who plays a large supporting role in the film as George Swallow, cowrote the screenplay with Dean Riesner. (Riesner, billed as Dink Dean, also appeared in the film.) Sawyer, who spent most of his career as an actor, also produced; this film was his only writing and producing credit.

Bill Williams and Tom Brown play brothers who own a ranch in Nevada. Williams' character is hurt when his brother decides to leave the ranch in order to volunteer to return to active duty in the Air Force. Nursing a grudge, he's reluctant to accept the help of the Air Force when his herd is in trouble. Williams wakes up and smells the proverbial coffee thanks to his son Roy (a winning portrayal by Tommy Ivo).

I found this low-budget Lippert Pictures film, made with the cooperation of the U.S. Air Force, deeply pleasurable. Over the last few days I've watched some very notable, beautifully made classic films, such as SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957) and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951). I think I found this film as enjoyable as the much more famous '50s movies I've seen of late.

Leonard Maltin classed the film as "routine," but just as I wrote regarding another "routine" Air Force film, AIR CADET (1951), "There's real value and interest in watching this little piece of Korean War era history from six decades ago." I suspect what was once seen as the ho-hum bottom of a double bill can be more appreciated now, with the perspective of the time that has passed since it was made. In its own way, a relatively unknown little movie like OPERATION HAYLIFT is very significant, preserving a certain time and place in America on film.

The film has very striking black and white photography by Benjamin H. Kline. There are some terrific location shots of the snow-covered mountains and cloud-filled skies. This may have been a low budget film, but I found some of the exterior scenes as starkly beautiful as the snowy shots in ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1952). The interiors have a sort of gritty newsreel look, the better to match up with the documentary footage from the Air Force incorporated into the film.

The acting won't necessarily win any awards, but the people all look and act very real, and the style of the performances is in keeping with the film's docudrama style. Kudos as well to the very realistic location settings. I suspect the ranch house interior was also filmed on location, as it looked very authentic and "lived in."

Ann Rutherford plays Williams' wife, with Jane Nigh as Brown's fiancee. The movie was directed by William Berke. It runs 73 minutes.

OPERATION HAYLIFT is available in an excellent print as part of the VCI DVD set Darn Good Westerns, Vol. 1. The DVD also includes a few historic black and white photographs documenting the real Operation Haylift.

This DVD is currently available from Netflix.


Blogger Page said...

I had never heard of this film! Thanks so much for bringing it to light for those of us who enjoy docudrama's.

Being off work today I found myself watching Abandon Ship last night on TCM then learning at the end that it was based on a true story. That made the film even better for me although the content was a bit disturbing. (I still have sea sickness)
If you don't mind I would like to feature this review on my sidebar.
Another wonderful review.
Have a great weekend.

1:18 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Page,

I especially love sharing info on "little" movies such as this so hopefully others can track them down and enjoy them too. I would be honored if you featured this review, thank you so much!

Being a major Tyrone Power fan, I had debated recording ABANDON SHIP!, but decided the subject matter was too tough for me to tackle at this point. How interesting it too was based on a true story! Thanks for that info.

Best wishes,

1:43 PM  
Blogger Carrie said...

Ooh, I will have to put that on my aviation movie watch list! Hadn't heard of that one.

2:25 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

As an aviation buff, I think you'd really enjoy it, Carrie! Let me know if you get to catch it sometime. :)

Best wishes,

5:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for bringing this title, as well as the Darn Good Westerns sets, to my attention! I added Operation Haylift, Shotgun, and the rest of them onto my Netflix queue — have to try to save some money this holiday season. :)

Will definitely give you feedback when I see them.

2:51 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks so much for your note, David. I'd enjoy very much hearing your thoughts on these films, pro or con -- fun to compare ideas!

If you wander back this way, you might want to check out my review of SHOTGUN as well.


Best wishes,

7:02 PM  

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