Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Buried Treasures: Seven Angry Men (1955)

This week’s “Overlooked Film” was originally going to be an entry of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s dormant “Cinematic Vegetables” feature: I sat down Saturday night to clear a few movies off the DVR (Dish does not offer The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ in HD, so even though I have a number of features DVR’d there’s no danger yet of running out of space—I just like to keep things tidy) and had decided on Strange Cargo (1940), the last of eight cinematic pairings featuring Clark Gable and Joan Crawford.  I was taking a chance with this one because as members of the TDOY faithful are aware…I’m not a disciple of the Clark Gable cult—his macho act wears pretty thin with me pretty fast.  But I’m always up to watching Joanie, and it was a prison escapee pic…in addition, the supporting cast made it enticing: Peter Lorre, Paul Lukas, Albert Dekker, Eduardo Ciannelli, etc.  (I joked to my mother that since I couldn’t tell the difference between Lukas and Bela Lugosi if both men spoke to me in a dark room, Cargo would almost be like having Lorre and Lugosi in the same film.)

The two of us watched about the first hour of Cargo…and then a message flashed across the screen that the poor satellite reception (we probably had a real toad-strangler raging when I recorded this) kept The Hopper from recording the rest of the movie.  I guess this means I have a date with Strange Cargo again in the future if I want to know how the movie turns out.  As Rancho Yesteryear’s cinematic quarterback, I was forced to call an audible and move on to the next movie on the “To Watch” list: Seven Angry Men (1955).

The ticked-off individuals of the film’s title refers to abolitionist John Brown (Raymond Massey) and his six sons—two of which, Owen (Jeffrey Hunter) and Oliver (Larry Pennell), are traveling by train to Kansas where their father has established a settlement…in the hopes that its members will tip the balance of the voting in the future Sunflower State to keep Kansas free (as opposed to a slave state) when it joins the Union.  Owen and Oliver encounter on board a couple of bruisers (members of a group called The Border Ruffians) who are decidedly hostile to their pa’s ideology, but are able to deal with the two goons with the help of a young woman named Elizabeth Clark (Debra Paget).  Elizabeth is quite impressed with Owen, particularly when he opines that “the best way to prevent violence is not to strike the first blow."  Her mood becomes a bit more chilly when she learns that he and brother Oliver are indeed related to the infamous John Brown.

The two brothers soon reunite with their father and brothers Salmon (Guy Williams), Frederick (John Smith), Jason (James Best), and John, Jr. (Dennis Weaver) at Camp Brown—which hosts a progressive mixture of both white and black settlers.  They also receive a visit from Martin White (Leo Gordon), leader of the Border Ruffians, who orders the settlers to vacate Kansas in 48 hours.  Since Brown and his followers have no intention of doing so, White and the Ruffians stage a terroristic raid on the nearby town of Lawrence, rompin’ and a-stompin’ and a-burnin’ everything in sight.  Five people—including Elizabeth’s father (Kenneth McDonald)—end up killed as a result, and John Brown retaliates with a little “eye for an eye” by having his sons kidnap five individuals who participated in the raid and execute them.

Their father’s remedy doesn’t sit too well with some of the Brothers Brown.  John, Jr. is physically sickened by the incident and, fearing for his brother’s sanity, Jason decides that he and brother will turn themselves over to the Union army.  Frederick is also repulsed by his father’s actions; he decides to go it alone…and is eventually killed by White and his minions one night when they come across his camp to ask him to join their cause.  The other Brown brothers elect to stay and fight with their father; the settlement is attacked by White (who will perish during the fight) and Owen is wounded during the skirmish.  While the settlers rebuild in order to be able to vote in the statehood election, Oliver and Salmon elect to walk away and return to their home in Ohio.  Despite her strong objections to Brown’s philosophy, Elizabeth stays by Owen’s side to nurse him back to health.

Brown’s perseverance pays off: the vote goes in his favor, and Kansas is admitted as a free state.  Owen proposes to Elizabeth, stating the fight is over and he wants to return to Ohio to be with his family.  Though Elizabeth accepts his offer of marriage, she’s concerned that her father-in-law will take his fight elsewhere—and at the risk of a spoiler, he does just that in the historic attack on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.

When you study West Virginia history in high school, you’re eventually going to read about John Brown—amusingly depicted in textbooks as some Michelle Bachman-eyed, bearded radical who looks like he stepped out of line at a soup kitchen somewhere.  The performance of Raymond Massey as Brown is a bit more nuanced in Seven Angry Men; he’s still a fanatic but made more complex in that while his cause is just—abolition of slavery, which he considers immoral and rightly so—his methods to address this injustice are suspect.  His fervent conviction that the Almighty has tapped him on the shoulder to fight slavery by any violent means necessary isn’t too far distant from those individuals who cloak despicable acts of terrorism in the handy raiment of religion.

Massey’s performance as Brown in Seven Angry Men is also refreshing if you’ve only been exposed to his previous interpretation in Santa Fe Trail (1940).  Jack Warner instructed Trail screenwriter Robert Buckner that he should “make the son-of-a-bitch the heavy,” so there’s a layer of irony in the fact that Trail is better known when Men is clearly the better picture (admittedly, Trail has been in the public domain for a number of years while Angry Men is just now getting a little attention, thanks to a MOD Warner Archive release).  In between the two films, Massey tackled the role in a 1952 stage production of Stephen Vincent Benet’s John Brown’s Body, directed by the great Charles Laughton.

For a low-budget film—it was released by Allied Artists, formerly the Poverty Row studio affectionately known as Monogram—Seven Angry Men boasts an impressive cast of performers who would also go on to small screen glory.  Dennis Weaver would win an Emmy as Gunsmoke deputy Chester Goode (Gunsmoke’s producer in its first season was Charles Marquis Warren, Angry Men’s director), and actors like Larry Pennell (Ripcord, The Beverly Hillbillies), John Smith (Cimarron City, Laramie), and Guy Williams (Zorro, Lost in Space) also round out some of John Brown’s progeny.  I didn’t realize it while I watched the movie but the actress who plays Mary Brown (she seems to be be channeling Aggie Moorehead)—the elder John’s wife—is Ann Tyrrell…Ann Sothern’s female sidekick on both Private Secretary and The Ann Sothern Show.  (John Lupton, star of the TV version of Broken Arrow, can be glimpsed in a small role as Lt. Jeb Stuart.)

The love interest angle in Seven Angry Men—which sadly competes with the abolitionist story, making the finished project melodramatic and a tad over-wrought at times—is essayed by Jeffrey Hunter and Debra Paget; the two made five films together (including Fourteen Hours and Belles on Their Toes) and were often linked romantically in the various gossip columns of the day.  Hunter was still a ways off from appearing in a gazillion John Ford films (The Searchers, The Last Hurrah) and Paget, while competent enough, is probably better known for her off-screen “party girl” antics than anything else (though I’m sure I could find something she was in I liked by applying The Blind Squirrel Theory of Film™).

I very much enjoyed James Edwards’ performance as former slave Ned Green—committed to Brown’s cause but wise enough to know when to step away from the table.  Edwards is best known as the star of Home of the Brave (1949), but he also had nice turns in The Phenix City Story, The Killing and The Manchurian Candidate (as Corporal “Allan Melvin”).  Seven Angry Men is a virtual cornucopia of character presences: Dabbs Greer is the doc who administers to the injured Owen; Robert F. Simon an Army colonel who warns Brown that his neck will be fitted for a noose soon; and there’s also contributions from serial and B-Western stalwarts like I. Stanford Jolly, Lane Bradford, Selmer Jackson, John Pickard, and Don C. Harvey.  (I told Mom while we watched this it was a casting call for a Lone Ranger episode.)

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