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Sunday, October 4, 2015

THE SHEPHERD OF THE HILLS (1941)

Evocatively helmed by Henry Hathaway, this very loose adaptation of a long forgotten novel by the once ubiquitous Harold Bell Wright makes for a decent slice of backwoods Ozarks Americana. And lovely to look at in surprisingly delicate TechniColor for the time, coaxed out by lenser Charles Lang. Harry Carey, a great Western star of the silent era, gets a rare lead in an A-pic, co-starring as prodigal dad to John Wayne’s revenge-minded son. Betty Field, in a lovely perf*, is the neighboring gal who guesses at the relationship, but knows Wayne would kill Carey if he recognized the father whose desertion led to his mother’s early death. Unable to reveal his identity, Carey takes on the task of helping just about everyone in the little valley, altruistic behavior that just adds to the suspicions of his new neighbors. That’s especially true for stubborn, embittered valley matriarch Beulah Bondi, certain that Carey’s out to destroy her illegal moonshine business and steal the affections of her favored, but damaged son (a haunting perf from Marc Lawrence). At times, the melodrama and the locals’ earthy qualities are short on conviction or come off as condescending, but much is quite subtly handled. And a self-immolation climax is something of an astonishment.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Betty Field showed her remarkable range over her next two films, BLUES IN THE NIGHT/’41 and KINGS ROW/’42, and it may have been that chameleon quality that kept her from the major film career she seemed destined for. OR: For true Smoky Mountain authenticity, try Karl Brown’s sui generis location-shot late silent STARK LOVE/’27.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: John Wayne was famously rescued from B-Western purgatory via a standout lead in John Ford’s STAGECOACH/'39. And, in a lesser way, Harry Carey also found his way out of B-Western purgatory in 1939 with a standout supporting perf in Frank Capra’s MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON. It didn’t make the 60ish Carey a star again, but it got him back in the majors.

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