Part of the reason why I was not so eager to leave the confines of my warm and cozy bed was that I stayed up late watching one of the many features offered via CharredHer’s Sundance Channel on Demand—the movie in question being Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s 4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile (2007—aka 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days), an offbeat suspense thriller that documents the preparations two women (Anamaria Marinca, Laura Vasiliu) must undergo in order to obtain an illegal abortion in 1980s Romania. Subject matter aside, this is a real nail-biter that plays out in real time—and ended up taking home a sack full of film awards, including the Palme D’or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. Avid TDOY readers know I’m a bit of a lowbrow in my movie tastes but this sleeper really knocked me for a loop, and I heartily recommend you slipping it into your Netflix queue at your earliest opportunity.
However, since my agenda was pretty light today, I did manage to catch the following:
Blazing the Western Trail (1945) – Another turn for cowboy star Charles Starrett as The Durango Kid (question: Starrett usually plays two characters in these B-westerns—a guy named Steve or Jeff or Jim or whatever and, of course, The Durango Kid…since the Kid rides a white horse and the other character does not…does he ever worry that someone will stumble onto the white horse when it’s not in use?), only this time he has a partner in Tex Harding and the comedy relief is provided by Dub Taylor. Two stagecoach lines in the bustling hamlet of Quando Basin are competing against one another to land a lucrative postal delivery contract; the good line is run by Bill Halliday (Nolan Leary) and daughter Mary (Carole Mathews) while the evil one is managed by Dan Waring (Steve Clark) on behalf of ruthless bidnessman Forrest Brent (Preston Sturges stock company member Al Bridge). Waring is killed by one of Brent’s henchmen (Mauritz Hugo) and Halliday is set up to take the fall; Waring’s nephew Jeff (Starrett) rides into town and while agreeing to take over for his uncle as manager, suspects that Brent is up to no good. (Hey, it is Al Bridge we’re talking about—it’s pretty much a sucker’s bet.) This is an enjoyable if run-of-the-mill oater (there are only so many different ways you can do this timeworn plot) but the big draw here is Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, who perform Ida Red (the inspiration for Chuck Berry’s Maybelline), Goodbye, Liza Jane and Time Changes Everything. Waylon Jennings was right…Bob Wills is still the King.
Rio Grande (1950) – I was wondering how the final film in John Ford’s “Cavalry” trilogy managed to get sandwiched between a pair of B-westerns when it suddenly dawned on me that it was all part of a theme since the Sons of the Pioneers (featuring lead singer Ken “Festus” Curtis) make an appearance. (Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys were in Western Trail and Spade Cooley was featured in Rockies.) Grande is probably the most underrated of Ford’s trio of films made as a valentine to the United States Cavalry although it’s not much different than what you’ll find in Fort Apache (1948; my personal favorite of the three) or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949): “Duke” Wayne is the stern commander who places duty and honor above all else, Victor McLaglen the comedic Irish sergeant with a taste for the good stuff, Harry Carey, Jr. the hayseed who makes good as a soldier, etc. Claude Jarman, Jr. plays Jeff Yorke, a West Point candidate who flunks out and decides to enlist in the Cavalry; he’s sent to the same post commanded by his pop (Wayne) with which he’s had a bit of a strained relationship. Maureen O’Hara is Jarman’s mom (oh, how I wish Maureen could have been my Mom…), who intends to secure his release…but hubby Wayne has other ideas. Grande also features performances from Ben Johnson (a most welcome presence as a Texas fugitive who steals Wayne’s horse to get away from a deputy marshal [Grant Withers]; he tells Jarman at one point: “Thank your pappy for the loan of his horse”), Chill Wills, J. Carrol “Luigi” Naish, and Karolyn “Zuzu” Grimes.
On the Old Spanish Trail (1947) – The Sons of the Pioneers encore in this standard Roy Rogers western; they’ve apparently reneged on a loan that “the King of the Cowboys” co-signed and now his royal Royness must figure out a way to raise $10,000—which he hopes to do by capturing the notorious bandit Rico (Tito Guizar!), aka “The Gypsy.” (Something I wondered about when the subject of the note was brought up: did Bob Nolan and the rest of the pioneers sign it individually, or did they allow them to get away with just scrawling “The Sons of the Pioneers”?) “Gypsy,” of course, is the least of Roy’s problems: he’s saddled with the painful comedy relief of Andy Devine (as Cookie Bullfincher) and must match wits with noir icon Charles McGraw who’s the real criminal mastermind here. (Yes, I know I’ve seen my man Charlie in westerns before—Blood on the Moon and Saddle the Wind are the ones that come immediately to mind—but he always seems a bit out of place on the prairie without his double-breasted and trenchcoat. Then again, I didn’t expect to see him pop up in Spartacus, either.) Jane Frazee is the love interest, Trigger is still “the smartest horse in the movies”, and while Trail isn’t much to miss Matlock over, it does have a nifty stunt-laden stagecoach chase at the end, masterfully directed by the incomparable William Witney.