Monday, May 27, 2013

Tonight's Movie: Canyon Passage (1946)

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. 

As portrayed by Andrews and Hayward, Logan and Lucy have a curious relationship. Given that they plainly care about each other, the viewer wonders what led Lucy to choose the dashing but less reliable George.  It seems that perhaps Logan was too invested in his business and the travel it required, while the lazier George was more available.

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."

Those who want to learn more about CANYON PASSAGE might also be interested that my friend Blake Lucas, an amazingly knowledgeable film historian, wrote about this movie briefly as part of an essay in 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.

CANYON PASSAGE was a rare U.S. film for British actress Patricia Roc, the star of popular British films such as 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.

One of the film's greatest attributes is its extensive location filming in Oregon, lushly shot in Technicolor by 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).

I watched CANYON PASSAGE on a very nice 1998 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.

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.

January 2019: I finally had that chance to see this on a big screen with a 35mm screening at The Autry Museum of the American West. I wrote more about the film and the screening for Classic Movie Hub.

December 2019 Update: CANYON PASSAGE will be released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber in March 2019! Extras will include a commentary track by Toby Roan of 50 Westerns From the 50s.

April 2020 Update: My review of the Kino Lorber Blu-ray is here.


Blogger Caftan Woman said...

Fabulous article on an under-appreciated film.

Upon first viewing, I wasn't sure what to make of "Canyon Passage", but couldn't forget it. It took that second viewing to start to appreciate all of its storytelling strengths.

4:20 PM  
Blogger Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

This sounds like a really interesting movie—hope it stays up online long enough for me to see it. :) I've got "Ole Buttermilk Sky" (as well as "On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe") on my mp3 player.

4:28 PM  
Blogger Stephen Reginald said...

Laura, this is terrific overview of one of my favorite westerns. It's beautifully mounted, acted, and directed, as you noted. Good job all around! Thanks for featuring.

5:18 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

I first saw Canyon Passage at a theatre on its initial release in 1946. I think it is not about a town but about Logan. A somewhat different view is that Logan for all his ambition is soft. HIs softness, exemplified when he does not kill Bragg, something everyone in town including Lucy encourages, results in rape, murder, Indian warfare and the destruction of the town and Logan's business. I see Logan as an isolationist prior to the outset of WW II and we know in reality and on film how that worked out.

7:34 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I'm glad to know this movie interests so many others!

Caftan Woman, you put it exactly right, the first time I enjoyed the film but, as you say, I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. However, it really stayed with me, much more so than some other films seen in the same time frame, and on the second viewing I liked it even more.

Elisabeth, I think you would really enjoy this one given how much you enjoy Westerns.

Stephen, thanks for sharing your thoughts too! It surely is a gorgeous movie, and I hope perhaps my post might lead others to try it.

Barrylane, how wonderful you saw the film upon its first release. You've shared a really interesting point of view, and although I don't see Logan as soft myself, I think you make a thought-provoking argument which I'll consider when I watch the film again in the future. I think it's a mark of the film's strength that it gives the viewer so much to mull over. Thanks for your perspective.

Best wishes,

8:02 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

By soft I mean that as the leader he took the easy way and that turned out to be costly for himself and many others. The requirement for action comes to the most able. My late wife, who loved Dana, did not like his character. Thought Logan a coward. Bear in mind she was raised in occupied France and those people waited for the Americans to save them. They did just that, but not Johnny on the spot.

8:56 PM  
Blogger Robby Cress said...

I've never seen this one - but my oh my - what a cast! I'll have to check it out.

7:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Laura, that's a really first rate article on a wonderful movie. Well done indeed.

I think it is indeed a film that grows on you, but that's actually a strength rather than a weakness.

It's beautifully shot and the performances are very strong. I agree wholeheartedly with Rollyson's assessment that the movie is a neglected masterpiece.


1:04 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hope you can check it out, Robby! If you like the cast you should enjoy the film. :)

Colin, given how much I admire your film writing and insights, your lovely compliment made my day. Thank you! It's certainly a rich film which has more to discover on successive viewings.

Best wishes,

2:01 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

Just briefly, "Canyon Passage" is showing in a 35 print at LACMA next Tuesday at the 1 PM matinee for those who live in or near L.A. and want to see it on the big screen. I posted a little more about this at Laura's "Branded" review but also want to note here because I mean to make a longer comment here I don't have time for now, though mean to do it in the next few days.

3:40 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Blake, I'm so glad you let everyone know about that screening at LACMA and updated the post with the info. Hope it's a good print and if so I really hope it will be shown again, perhaps somewhere like UCLA. I'd love to see it on a big screen.

I'll be looking forward to your thoughts on CANYON PASSAGE whenever you have time, Blake, and I'm sure other readers will enjoy them as well.

Best wishes,

11:14 PM  
Blogger Jan Zamojski said...

One of the "not-quite-canonical" Westerns of the post-war period that I most admire, along with Wellman's "Yellow Sky" (1948, DP Joe MacDonald) and Walsh's "Pursued" (1947, DP James Wong Howe). Thanks for alerting potential viewers to its merits!

4:45 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Jan, that's a great list, I admire both YELLOW SKY and PURSUED very much. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Best wishes,

5:12 PM  

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