Sunday, June 10, 2018

Tonight's Movie: The Hanging Tree (1959) - A Warner Archive Blu-ray Review

Gary Cooper stars as a doctor with a troubled past in the Western THE HANGING TREE (1959), available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive.

Having recently enjoyed Gary Cooper in the romantic comedy DESIRE (1936), today I turned to THE HANGING TREE, one of the last few films released before Cooper's death in the spring of 1961.

THE HANGING TREE begins in promising fashion, with gorgeous vistas of Washington State, filmed by Ted McCord, while Marty Robbins sings the title song. The score by Max Steiner is notably good.

Between Cooper and the movie's opening, I was predisposed to like the film...but I didn't. I really didn't. It's the rare Western that simply didn't work for me.

Cooper plays Dr. Joseph Frail, who has just set up shop in a mining town when he rescues a young criminal named Rune (Ben Piazza) from a mob. The doctor, who is equal parts kindly and controlling, turns Rune into an indentured servant of sorts.

Shortly thereafter, the townspeople rescue an immigrant named Elizabeth (Maria Schell) who was wandering in the wilderness after her stagecoach was attacked; she's deathly ill from exposure but the doctor nurses her back to health. Elizabeth comes to love the doctor but he pushes her away; he has a dark past involving burning down a house with his wife and brother inside, and he lets people get only so close and no closer.

Elizabeth ends up digging for gold with Rune and an oddball character named Frenchy (Malden). They're successful, but when Frenchy physically attacks Elizabeth and the doctor metes out frontier justice, it precipitates a climactic confrontation in which the townspeople threaten to lynch the doctor.

I like a number of director Delmer Daves' films very much, most recently THE RED HOUSE (1947), but THE HANGING TREE has what I can only describe as an "icky" feel throughout, whether it's Malden's loon having a carbuncle removed from his rear end (really?! did we need that?) or George C. Scott's alcoholic itinerant doom-and-gloom preacher constantly ranting warnings about the doctor.

Part of the movie's problem is its lack of admirable characters. The most ethical man in the movie is the kindly storekeeper played by Karl Swenson (LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE), and unfortunately he has a selfish shrew of a wife (Virginia Gregg) who causes Elizabeth great pain. Young Rune is semi-sympathetic, but otherwise the only character to root for is Elizabeth, and she spends a good chunk of the movie horrendously sunburned and with her eyes bandaged, to the point that in her early scenes I honestly didn't want to look at her and that ghastly sunburn.

I suppose the film is attempting to tell a story of the doctor's redemption, as he helps Elizabeth behind the scenes and finally allows her to love him, but I simply didn't feel anything for him. And if I don't feel anything for a Gary Cooper character, that's a problem.

I know this film has admirers among my fellow Western fans, so other viewers who try the film may well have a different take.  The Warner Archive Blu-ray is a beautiful print which I can recommend for anyone who wants to see it. (There are a handful of odd-looking insert shots with fake backgrounds but I think those would look poor no matter what.) The disc includes the trailer.

Vincent Sherman and Karl Malden are listed by IMDb as having made uncredited directing contributions to THE HANGING TREE. It runs 107 minutes.

For a very good mining town movie I recommend Anthony Mann's excellent THE FAR COUNTRY (1954), a film I loved and look forward to seeing again.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray. Warner Archive Blu-rays may be ordered from the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.


Blogger john knight said...

Hi Laura,

Just to let you know I'm wearing my flak jacket,in view of the torrents of abuse
I will no doubt receive-if it's from learned friends like Barry Lane and Walter,
I guess I will just have to take it on the chin.
Firstly Laura,a typo Ben Piazza, not Gazzara played the young man.
Actually I have always felt this role should have been played by Vic Morrow.
Furthermore,I thought Royal Dano should have played the George c Scott role.
Never really liked Malden in Westerns either.
Now we get to the nitty gritty-I'm afraid I'm not that big on Gary Cooper-he's my
least favourite of the major Western stars.
Last time I stated this over at Colin's I got responses like don't ever dare show your
face in Montana-or else!!
Overall I just don't care for Cooper's acting style-furthermore in later roles he's just
too darn old-unlike say Robert Taylor Cooper just did not age well.
I adore Anthony Mann but have major problems with MAN OF THE WEST-Cooper and Jack Lord
as cousins..are you kidding. Lee J Cobb laughable as Cooper's uncle.
That film should have starred Robert Taylor and Burl Ives.
I collect Mann Westerns in high def so the film is essential for me despite my gripes-
I've never understood it's reputation as a masterpiece which for me it certainly is not.
My favourite Cooper Western is GARDEN OF EVIL and even a non-fan like myself must
admit he is wonderful in that film.
I also collect Daves' Westerns in high def and consider his masterwork 3 10 TO YUMA
one of the greatest Westerns ever made.
I rate THE HANGING TREE below the three Glenn Ford Daves Westerns but above,say
THE BADLANDERS. As you mention the Warner transfer is stunning,jaw dropping in fact,
it totally smokes the DVD version.
I feel that I like THE HANGING TREE more than you do Laura,I too have "issues" with
the film but in such pristine form the film is essential and yep Cooper is pretty darn
good too even I must admit.
I too love THE FAR COUNTRY and soon to be released in Europe will be a Blu Ray from a
brand new 4K restoration...simply cannot wait for that.
I recently commentated over at Colin's the fact that Mann classics like WINCHESTER'73
and BEND OF THE RIVER need proper restorations,especially their importance as Westerns.
The Australian Blu Ray of WINCHESTER'73 is nice and sharp but has extensive neg damage
and imperfections-it needs a 4K restoration.possibly by Criterion.
The Euro version of Blu Ray of BEND OF THE RIVER is very nice but needs color correction
in parts...hopefully these will follow in time. The Mann I am waiting for is THE NAKED
SPUR to complete my set of major Mann Westerns in high definition.
To end I would say that the Warner Archive Blu Ray of THE HANGING TREE is an essential
purchase for Western fans-though I feel you have given this film a very fair review...
certainly not for all tastes.

2:45 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi John!

First, thanks very much indeed for pointing out my absent-minded typing of "Gazzara," all fixed now!!

Really appreciated all your input. I still need to see some of the Cooper Westerns you mention! It's interesting because unlike you I'm more of a Cooper fan yet this particular one didn't work for me. I'm glad to have you add your thoughts on the film as it seems like it's one of those movies which is going to cause varied reactions.

I found 3:10 TO YUMA (1957) only so-so but I loved Delmer Daves' BROKEN ARROW (1950) and the lesser-known THE LAST WAGON (1956).

Speaking of Mann, look for a discussion of one of my fave Westerns, BEND OF THE RIVER (1952), as part of my first column for my new monthly series on Westerns at Classic Movie Hub. It should be posted sometime in the next month; I'll note it here when it's up!

Great to hear from you, John!

Best wishes,

8:43 AM  
Blogger Stefano said...

I haven't seen "The Hanging Tree", but I did chuckle on reading your description of Virginia Gregg as the shrewish wife. Gregg was one of several voice actors portraying cantankerous old Mrs. Bates in "Psycho". Gregg did have a sympathetic role as John Cassavetes' mother in "Crime in the Streets", which has screened a couple of times in L.A. recently.

P.S.--Regarding the claim made in "Bombshell" that Hedy Lamarr was the visual inspiration for Snow White, all I could find was that Lamarr attended the film's 1937 premiere.

8:43 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

John Knight -- I agree with you about Cooper, The Hanging Tree and Garden of Evil. He was a wonderful actor even when miscast, but my problem with his work is a matter of personal preference, nothing more.

9:07 AM  
Blogger Jerry Entract said...

I can forgive Cooper almost anything because of his superb work in "HIGH NOON". Like you, Laura, the first time I saw "THE HANGING TREE" I did not find it an especially easy watch. Over the years I have come to appreciate it rather more.

2:38 PM  
Blogger Vienna said...

It’s always interesting when we don’t all agree about a film. I guess it is all down to personal preference as Barry Lane says. I like Cooper and The Hanging Tree But I love Bend of the River, The Last Wagon, 3.10 To Yuma, Garden of Evil - will look out for your review, Laura, of Bend of the River.
Also one of my favourites, The Naked Spur - hope John gets his wish and is it released in high-def.
Enjoying the discussion.

12:05 AM  
Blogger john knight said...

Thanks for your reply Laura.

I'm amazed that you find 3.10 TO YUMA only so-so-jeepers! I hope Blake Lucas does
not read this-I've already upset him with my take on MAN OF THE WEST.
I hope that you get to see MAN OF THE WEST I'd love to know your opinion of the film.
3.10 TO YUMA is one of my all time top ten Westerns-it's right up there with SHANE
and HIGH NOON..even better IMHO.
In too love BROKEN ARROW and THE LAST WAGON the latter,that you correctly say is
underrated. With THE HANGING TREE I now have all of the key Daves Westerns in high
definition with the exception of DRUM BEAT and I.m more than happy with the
Warner Archive DVD but will upgrade if a Blu Ray happens.
Laura,am I correct in thinking that you have yet to see GARDEN OF EVIL-if this is so
you are in for a real treat-Cooper and Widmark are a dream team if ever there was one.
I look forward very much to your take on BEND OF THE RIVER please supply a link and
post it over at Toby's as well.
I love the interplay between Jimmy and Arthur Kennedy who of course was a great scene
stealer-Arthur starts fiddling with his hat and stuff and Jimmy gives him one
of his knowing looks-wonderful to watch-those two always worked so well together-
I was glad that they ended up on the same side in CHEYENNE AUTUMN.
Lots of folks say the Dodge City section in CHEYENNE AUTUMN should have been cut
from the film-I disagree-just an opportunity to watch two masters at work.
I also watched THE RARE BREED recently which I loved even better than at the time.
The first half of the film has Jimmy dealing with nasty Jack Elam and the second
half has a whimsical almost Disney quality...totally charming..another Western
that I would love to hear your take on.

Kind regards,


4:18 AM  
Blogger Walter S. said...

Laura. I think you gave us a fair review of a Western movie that you really didn't like and I can understand your reasons. Wouldn't it be a dull old World if we all liked the same things, as in the same movies, TV shows, plays, and so forth. I agree with Vienna(VIENNA'S CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD is a site that I really enjoy) that it is interesting when we don't all agree on a movie and as Barry Lane said it comes down to personal preference. Getting down to brass tacks, the big picture is that we all like to watch Classic Movies and we all have personal preferences. Also, we can discuss them without falling into the muck of political and culture harangues. Laura, keep doing what you do, I enjoy it so much.

John K, I'm not going to jump on you like stink off of a skunk, or ugly on an ape. I really enjoy reading what you write, because you are so informative and helpful. I'm not surprised that Gary Cooper is your least favorite of the major Western stars. My favorite is Randolph Scott, hands down. Fact is, after thinking about it, Coop is far down my list of favorite Western stars and I really like him in Westerns. GARDEN OF EVIL(1954) is a visual feast for the mind's eye. I agree with Jerry Entract about Coop's superb work in HIGH NOON(1952), although I don't really care for the storyline of the movie. Coop was a master at acting with his eyes, facial expressions, and the language of body movement. The movie going public liked different Gary Cooper personas. Some liked him for his work in movies like DESIGN FOR LIVING(1933)and TODAY WE LIVE(1933); others preferred Frank Capra's everyman in MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN(1936) and MEET JOHN DOE(1941); the bios SERGEANT YORK(1941) and THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES(1942); the Westerns THE VIRGINIAN(1929) and THE PLAINSMAN(1936); or the Westerns HIGH NOON and THE HANGING TREE(1959). My personal favorite is the Gary Cooper of SERGEANT YORK. The reluctant star who at first turned down the role because he didn't think he was worthy enough to play an American hero. When accepting the academy award for best actor, Coop replied that he didn't win it, Sergeant York won the award. Gary Cooper was a very fine actor and the movie going public made him the box office champion.

11:06 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi everyone!! I've been enjoying all the comments to much -- I've been buried under work deadlines so I appreciate everyone keeping the conversation going!

Sometimes I think the conversations about a movie I'm not fond of can be more interesting than those for movies I love -- I enjoy the variety of perspectives and I appreciate everyone sharing their thoughts in a friendly way. (Thank you, Walter, I'm glad you enjoy the discussions too!)

Stefano, I've always appreciated Virginia Gregg because I grew up watching her in DRAGNET reruns! :) Also, thank you so much for getting back to me on SNOW WHITE. I haven't had time to pull my book off the shelf but it's on my "to do" list!

Based on the comments of John, Barrylane, and Walter, I really need to get out my set with GARDEN OF EVIL and give it a look! (You're right, John, I haven't seen it yet!) Sure like the cast.

Confession: Although I like Cooper and have appreciated the movie when I saw it in the past, HIGH NOON doesn't have all that much of a pull on me. (I believe I first saw it at a Filmex Film Festival in Century City as a teenager.) I've seen it more than once but haven't revisited it in years. I liked it OK when I saw it and haven't sat down to analyze why it's not a favorite, but there are so many Westerns I've seen in the intervening years that I like much better, I'm just not very motivated to go back to it. I wouldn't object to seeing it again, I didn't dislike it, but I'm not in a hurry to spend more time with it, either. I'd rather watch something like PANHANDLE or a Mann or Ford film again instead...

Vienna, THE NAKED SPUR was terrific. I was so lucky to see a whole bunch of Anthony Mann films at UCLA a couple years ago!

John, thanks for the plug for THE RARE BREED, another film where I like the cast and have the movie but haven't watched it yet!

Great input from everyone and I have some fresh titles for my "watch soon" stack! Thanks!

Best wishes,

11:29 PM  
Blogger john knight said...

Hi Laura,

These conversations have been wonderful.
I like HIGH NOON but oddly enough I prefer SILVER LODE if that makes any sense.
I wish Cooper had played more roles in the vein of GARDEN OF EVIL he is so good
in that film. I like SPRINGFIELD RIFLE but would rather Randolph Scott starred-
I felt the film was more in line with the sort of characters Scott played.
Scott is far and away my favourite Western actor-with Joel McCrea and Audie Murphy
second and third-plainly because they mainly devoted themselves to Westerns from 1945
(from 1950 in Murphy's case)
Wayne and Stewart are in a league of their own,especially in view of their enormous
box office appeal in the 50's in other genres besides Westerns.
A list 50's stars like Robert Taylor,Richard Widmark,Kirk Douglas,Alan Ladd
and Glenn Ford made wonderful Westerns,I enjoy watching them all.
I am also very fond of the "second string" Western stars my favourites being George
Montgomery,Rory Calhoun,Jock Mahoney and Rod Cameron. Guy Madison could have been a real
contender especially if he had more films like REPRISAL! and THE HARD MAN.
Even when he was making the Spaghetti's (mostly lousy) he still looked great and
it's a shame American programmer Westerns were becoming a thing of the past.
Madison would have been an ideal contender for the Lyles films but sadly he was very
busy in Europe at that time.
Thanks for the kind words Walter,mostly undeserved I might add especially in view
of your most informative contributions the the various blogs.

3:01 AM  
Blogger Jerry Entract said...

I just have to say here that John's listing of his western favorites is almost completely in line with my own. Randolph Scott at tops for me too. But those differing levels too - the 'A' list actors (I would only add Fred MacMurray)and the second string leads - yup absolutely (I would like to put Bill Elliott in there somewhere).

Really interesting conversations going on here.

10:51 AM  
Anonymous Stanley Wheeler said...

I haven't seen THE HANGING TREE, but now I'll look for an opportunity to see it. I look forward to your post about BEND IN THE RIVER. I saw part of that recently. Jimmy Stewart is (as always) outstanding. I really found some of his facial expressions unique (and disturbing) in that film.

9:22 PM  

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