Saturday, September 19, 2015

Tonight's Movie: Jubilee Trail (1954)

Note: This post is my contribution to the Republic Pictures Blogathon being hosted by 50 Westerns From the 50s and The Hannibal 8. The blogathon runs all weekend, September 18th through the 20th. Be sure to visit both sites for lots of links and some really wonderful posts on all sorts of movies from Republic Pictures.

The best thing about the junior high school I attended was its extremely well-stocked library, where I met many favorite books for the first time. One of the novels I loved the most -- and read several times over in my teen years -- was JUBILEE TRAIL, a Western novel by Gwen Bristow. That book, I might add, is still in print today, 65 years after its 1950 publication.

I also had the chance to see the 1954 Republic Pictures version of JUBILEE TRAIL (1954) on commercial TV in my teen years -- or at least most of it, as with a 103-minute running time I suspect some of it was edited out to fit both the movie and commercials in a two-hour time slot!

Alas, at that time I was terribly disappointed in the book-to-movie translation, particularly the casting of Vera Hruba Ralston as Florinda, the flashy dance hall singer who befriends heroine Garnet Hale (Joan Leslie); Ralston didn't match my concept of the character in the least.

Ralston was a Czech ice skater married to the head of Republic Pictures, Herbert J. Yates, and he was determined to make her a movie star. She'd been in Republic films for over a decade at this point, beginning with skating movies in 1941; she and Yates married in 1952, and would remain married until his death in 1966.

With the passage of time and faded memories of the book, which I've not reread for many years, I became interested in revisiting the movie. Only Joan Leslie had been much of a "name" to me the first time I saw the film, but roles big and small are filled with actors I've come to appreciate over the years, including Forrest Tucker, Pat O'Brien, John Russell, and James Millican, which increased my interest in seeing it again.

This time around I was fortunate to see the movie in a lovely print, thanks to my friend John Knight, and I'm happy to report my reevaluation: JUBILEE TRAIL is quite a well-made, enjoyable movie which I liked a great deal. I'll happily watch it again in the future.

If Wikipedia is to be believed, Yates purchased the novel's rights "at great expense." It's worth noting that the book was popular enough back in the day that the cover art was used in both the movie's title credits and its poster art.

The screenplay for JUBILEE TRAIL was written by novelist Bristow's husband, Bruce Manning, whose screenwriting career included several favorite Deanna Durbin movies. As I vaguely recall, Manning made a number of changes condensing the story to movie length, which had been part of my problem with the film on my first viewing; seen now, I'm impressed with the fact he wrangles such a large cast of characters into a coherent and engaging story.

While not an especially lavish film compared to other studios' releases, Republic Pictures made JUBILEE TRAIL with care, employing a large cast, a number of well-decorated sets, beautiful gowns by Adele Palmer, and a memorable score by the great Victor Young. It was beautifully shot in Trucolor by Jack Marta, and the color still looked wonderful in the version I just watched. The movie was produced and directed by Joseph Kane, who made countless Westerns over his long career with the studio.

JUBILEE TRAIL is a Western melodrama which reunited Forrest Tucker and Joan Leslie, stars of the previous year's fine Republic film FLIGHT NURSE (1953). Leslie plays Garnet Hale, a sheltered Easterner who's married trader Oliver Hale (John Russell) and is heading with him to his home in California.

When the party reaches New Mexico they're met by Oliver's partner, John Ives (Tucker), who's carrying a letter from Oliver's brother Charles (Ray Middleton). It seems that the daughter of a neighboring Spanish rancher has recently had Oliver's child, and her family has put out the word that she and Oliver are secretly married. He's expected to come home and quietly marry the girl, which will also unite two large ranches, as Charles has always dreamed. Needless to say, the fact that Oliver unexpectedly brings home a bride upsets a lot of apple carts.

The pregnant Garnet is quickly widowed, but John protects her from those who would do her ill and takes her to Los Angeles, where she's cared for by their friends, who include dance hall singer Florinda (Ralston), saloon owner Silky (Jim Davis), a huge, jovial Russian nicknamed "Handsome Brute" (Buddy Baer), and an alcoholic former doctor, Texas (Pat O'Brien).

One might wonder how realistic it was for a gently bred lady like Garnet to befriend such a "disreputable" group, but part of Garnet's value was her ability to look past the proprieties of the day and see the value in others, and this good-natured bunch helped her when someone like the proper Charles wouldn't.

After Garnet has a baby boy, Charles resurfaces, wanting to lay claim to the child and raise him on the ranch. At one point he even sends a pair of gunslingers (James Millican and Jack Elam) to kidnap the baby, but John returns home from one of his many trips just in time to shoot it out with them. The movie builds to its conclusion as Charles tries once more to steal the little boy; meanwhile John must decide if he's ready to give up his wandering ways and settle down with Garnet, who has quietly loved him for a long time.

Though I'm often a fan of shorter films, this is one of those films which feels like being immersed in a good book, and I was actually sorry when Young's score swelled to its climax and the movie came to an end. I very much liked spending time with this group of actors and the appealing characters they played.

Initially it seemed as though some of the actors, particularly Davis and O'Brien, didn't have a great deal to do, but there's something to be said for having actors of substance simply there. They bring the characters to life even with brief screen time, and there's a certain "shorthand" in using particular actors. When Davis's Silky announces that the gunslingers who walk into his saloon are really bad men, the viewer understands the danger level, because the man worrying is tough Jim Davis; and when we see Jack Elam standing there alongside James Millican, we immediately get why Davis's character is concerned. Elam and Millican are onscreen mere minutes but they make it count.

Likewise there's a terrific payoff for O'Brien in his final scene as Texas, where he -- having absolutely nothing to lose -- arranges to permanently protect Garnet and his little godson from Charles. He goes out with a tremendous bang in a real "wow" moment. Early on watching the film, I'd almost been wondering if O'Brien took the part for any reason other than a paycheck, but I'm sure that scene must have sealed the deal for him.

Leslie and Tucker are just right in the lead roles, other than Leslie having the wrong hair color. As for Ralston, you know what? Separated from comparisons to the character in the novel, she actually acquits herself quite well. I was surprised that she was not only not as bad as I remembered, she was just fine. She might not have been major movie star material as Mr. Yates had hoped, but she does well in this flashy supporting role.

The deep supporting cast includes Barton MacLane, Richard Webb, James O'Hara, Glenn Strange, Grant Withers, Nina Varela, and Victor Sen Yung.

JUBILEE TRAIL had a release on VHS but is not on DVD in the U.S.; however, it's had a Region 2 DVD release. It can also be streamed on Amazon Instant Video; streaming this title is free for Amazon Prime members.

Thanks again to Toby for hosting a terrific blogathon!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll look out for Jubilee Trail. I love your phrase, 'deep supporting cast'.
It's so true, and isnt great when you recognise all the names!

11:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent piece, Laura. You know, one of the great things about this blogathon is the way I've found myself reading about so many films I'm not acquainted with - it shows the depth of Republic's output and also, sadly, the difficulty in accessing so many of them. Still, it's good to see this is one movie which is easily obtained.


2:35 AM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

Terrific review, Laura! "JUBILEE TRAIL" is one of those films I have found a bit plodding at times when I saw it, despite having a stupendous cast. Your writing though makes me think I could have had an off-day when I saw it and need to be open to re-discovery!

3:32 AM  
Blogger Hal said...

Great review of one I almost took on myself (and probably will review myself at some point). Republic really went all out for this one in 1954. Ralston had improved considerably by this time as an actress.

JUBILEE TRAIL is also streaming at Epix HD right now, by the way:

Epix HD has a number of Republic films available now too.

5:32 AM  
Blogger James Corry said...

Since "Jubilee Trail" was a Republic Pictures release, perhaps (hopefully) we will eventually see Olive Films release it to home-video. This picture is totally unknown to me and I LOVE seeing "new" films!!


10:30 AM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

I too had been looking forward to it when I finally caught up with it (hadn't read the novel but knew it was an important movie to Republic) and then was a little underwhelmed though I enjoyed it overall.

Reading your review, it sounds so much like my kind of movie though--the journey, the relationships, the tonalities of Republic and Joe Kane direction, and hey, Jack Elam and James Millican coming in for even a few minutes as bad gunfighters is something that just can't not work!

So I believe I may have underrated it and will make a point to get back to it. The second time could well be the charm.

10:53 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you all so much for your comments! What fun it was to revisit this movie from a new perspective. I hope those of you who haven't seen it yet will be able to check it out, I'd love to hear what you think! Hal, thanks for sharing that link. I've noticed EPIX is streaming some movies lately so perhaps some folks can check the movie out that way. Brad, I'll cross my fingers for Olive Films to put it out!

Colin, I'm pulling DAKOTA INCIDENT out of my "to be watched" stack today, and I hope you can add JUBILEE TRAIL to yours soon.

Jerry and Blake, would love to know what you think if you revisit it. It's really interesting to see a film in a new context and be able to take away completely different things from an earlier viewing, isn't it? There's an awful lot in it that those of us here appreciate.

Thanks to all for your comments and to Toby for bringing us all together to celebrate Republic this weekend!

Best wishes,

12:05 PM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

I only saw this film once, but I've never forgotten it. I really liked the story and came away that that poor old Vera had the makings of a decent character actress, but her husband could only see her as a star.

I'd like to see some go-getting producer consider re-imagining this property. Its female=centric story should find an audience these days.

6:01 AM  
Blogger john k said...

Hi Laura,

I'm having trouble signing in so here goes.

I did post a lengthy comment that got lost so I'll keep this one brief.
Loved your review and I would love to see JUBILEE TRAIL get a "proper" release
in the correct ratio.

Only gripe is when Jack Elam and James Millican appear,mean as snakes,a bad guy
dream team,sadly they are gunned down as soon as they enter the film.
Vera's musical numbers are not my idea of fun either!
All in all an enjoyable film with a wonderful cast.

8:12 AM  

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