Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Diamonds & Gold Blogathon: Harry Davenport in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The Diamonds & Gold Blogathon, currently tag-teamed at Wide Screen World and Caftan Woman from April 12-13.  Rich’s blog features the gentlemen…while Our Lady of Great Caftan spotlights the distaff side.  There will be spoilers in the film discussed in this post, so if you haven’t seen the movie you might want to wait until you do before proceeding further.

When TDOY faves Caftan Woman and Wide Screen World first jointly announced The Diamonds & Gold Blogathon project a couple of months back I had a little josh at the concept, commenting that the “subject is compelling in its simplicity: select an actor or actress who continued to work in films well into their twilight years…and ignore the fact that a good many of them probably had to, because 1) actors have to act and 2) some of them also have to eat.”  It was, you understand, just me being facetious, which you may have observed from time to time is my wont.

But I didn’t mean to convey the impression that I didn’t take this blogathon seriously—it’s just that while the motivation for a number of actors to continue practicing their craft might in some cases be financial (there are a number of thesps who were able to retire comfortably…but a lot more who weren’t)…performing for many actors and actresses was something in their blood, and audiences were not always easily walked away from.  Harold George Bryant Davenport would most certainly qualify; born in Canton, PA in 1866, Harry continued to appear in films until his death in 1949 (his last three films, including his cinematic swan song Riding High [1950], were released not long after they had shoveled the dirt over him).  In the case of Davenport, acting was his passion: he was born into a theatrical family—his father was the legendary Edward Loomis Davenport, and his mother Fanny Vining, the descendant of the 19th century Irish stage actor Jack Johnson.  (His sister, also named Fanny, experienced a flair for the buskin as well.)  His offspring with wives Alice Davenport and Phyllis Rankin (also an actress) went into the same line of work as their father.  His dedication to the profession was such that Harry, along with Eddie Foy, co-founded Actors Equity—the labor union for actors, originally called The White Rats—to address the mistreatment of their fellow thesps by the theatre owners and impresarios at that time. 

While Davenport’s stage debut came at the age of five in a production of Damon and Pythias, he was sort of a latecomer where “the flickers” were concerned; according to the (always reliable) IMDb, his earliest film credit was 1913’s Kenton’s Heir and he soon began to make a name for himself in a series of silent comedy shorts identified as Mr. and Mrs. Jarr (Harry co-starred with actress Rose Tapley in these one-reelers for Vitagraph in addition to directing a number of them).  He was in his late 40s by the time he got into the motion picture business; his successful transition to talkies at his advanced age allowed him to play judges, bankers and doctors in the course of over one hundred additional features.

Often Harry would be cast as a grandfatherly type—he graced a number of the movies in Republic’s The Higgins Family franchise (which starred James, Lucille and Russell Gleason) as “Grandpa,” and was prominently the focus in 1940’s Grandpa Goes to Town, a wonderful showcase in an admitted B-picture programmer.  Harry’s best-remembered film role might arguably be that of Dr. Meade in Gone with the Wind (1939), but he also made memorable impressions in the likes of The Life of Emile Zola (1937), Wells Fargo (1937), You Can’t Take it With You (1938), The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), Foreign Correspondent (1940), The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941), One Foot in Heaven (1941), Kings Row (1941), Larceny, Inc. (1942), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), The Thin Man Goes Home (1945), The Enchanted Forest (1945—one of his few starring roles), The Farmer's Daughter (1947), The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947) and Little Women (1949).

My favorite Harry Davenport performance is without a doubt his portrayal of Arthur Davies in the 1943 western The Ox-Bow Incident (1943).  Based on Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s 1940 novel, Harry’s Davies is the sole voice of reason in a searing indictment of mob violence as the citizens of an 1885 Nevada town take the law into their own hands by pursuing a group of suspected cattle rustlers/murderers.

Two cowpokes, Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan), lope into the sleepy little hamlet of Bridger’s Wells, NV and begin to wet their whistle at a saloon maintained by a man named Darby (Victor Kilian).  The two men are greeted with some suspicion: there’s been a spate of castle rustling in the surrounding area of late, and the hostility Gil and Art receive eventually boils over into a brawl between Gil and blowhard Jeff Farnley (Marc Lawrence).  (Art later apologizes to bartender Darby, explaining that his pal just needed a fight to put him a better mood.)

A man named Green (William “Billy” Benedict!) rides in and excitedly tells the saloon contingent that a rancher named Larry Kinkaid has been killed, shot through the head.  Farnley, Kinkaid’s best bud, immediately starts to assemble a posse to chase after the individual(s) responsible, but from the attitude of several men it appears that the group could quickly morph into a lynch mob.  Even though Gil and Art are determined to stay out of this affair (since the suspicion towards them hasn’t exactly lifted for their comfort), storekeeper Arthur Davies (Davenport) begs Gil to contact judge Daniel Tyler (Matt Briggs) and explain the situation before things get out of hand.  Gil and a man named Joyce (Ted North) go to see Tyler and brief him on the events, much to Tyler’s dismay—the judge is hesitant to act since the sheriff is out of town.  Butch Mapes (Dick Rich), the town deputy, assures Judge Tyler that he can handle the situation—something that leaves both Gil and Tyler uneasy.

Tyler appeals to the growing number of men signing on with the lynching party—he tells them that the sheriff has, in fact, already gone out to the Kinkaid property and he’s certain the sheriff will deal with the matters at hand.  Just when it looks like the crowd has been persuaded (Darby and Davies even propose buying the crowd drinks), a disgraced Confederate Army major named Tetley (Frank Conroy) whips the contingent into a murderous frenzy again and this time there’s no stopping them—yet Davies convinces Gil and Art to accompany him on the hunt, hoping they’ll be of use in quieting the mob.  While on the quest for the rustlers, the party comes into contact with a stagecoach (the driver of which shoots and wounds Art in the arm) that counts among its passengers Rose Mapen (Mary Beth Hughes), a former girlfriend of Gil’s, and her new husband (George Meeker) and sister-in-law (Almira Sessions).

Reaching Ox-Bow Canyon, the lynch mob finds three men: Donald Martin (Dana Andrews), Juan Martinez (Anthony Quinn) and Alva “Dad” Hardwicke (Francis Ford).  Martin is a rancher who’s just moved to nearby Pike’s Hole within the past three days, and he’s purchased fifty head of cattle from Larry Kinkaid…though he neglected to get a bill of sale from Kinkaid at the time.  Davies is the only member of the group who vocally expresses his belief in the trio’s innocence, and he pleads with Tetley and the rest of the mob not to do anything rash; let the sheriff administer justice.   But Tetley, Mapes, Farnley and the other executioners will not be swayed: though Martin is given time to put his thoughts down in letter form for his soon-to-be widow, he and the other two men will be executed at dawn after a vote is taken among those assembled.  Only seven men—Davies, Gil, Art and four others including Tetley’s weakling son Gerald (William Eythe) and a preacher named Sparks (Leigh Whipper)—vote Davies’ way,

All but seven.

A desperate Davies beseeches select members of the mob to read what Martin has written in an attempt to change their minds, which only angers Martin; it is also at that time that Martinez attempts to make a break for it.  Martinez—identified as an outlaw named Francisco Morez—is in possession of Kinkaid’s gun (he claims to have found it), which continues to confound the case against their innocence.  At daybreak, the three men are placed on their horses while Farnley and the lone female member of the mob, Jenny “Ma” Grier (Jane Darwell), prepare to whip the stallions out from under them.  Tetley orders his son to tend to the third horse, but Gerald is too decent (and too afraid) to do so.  Having accomplished their deed, the group starts to ride out of the canyon but are greeted by Sheriff Risley (Willard Robertson)—who informs the crowd that while Larry Kinkaid was shot he is not dead.  Risley asks Davies who was responsible for the lynching…and the storekeeper solemnly replies: “All but seven.”

Back at Darby’s saloon, Gil reads aloud the letter Martin left with Davies to give to his wife (his buddy Art can’t read):

Man just naturally can’t take the law into his own hands and hang people without hurting everybody in the whole world…’cause then he’s just not breaking one law but all laws…law’s a lot more than words you put in a book—or judges or lawyers or sheriffs you hire to carry it out—it’s everything people have ever found out about justice and what’s right and wrong…it’s the very conscience of humanity…there can’t be such a thing as civilization unless people have a conscience…because if people touch God anywhere, where is it except through their conscience?  And what is anybody’s conscience except a little piece of the conscience of all men who ever lived?

The innocent and guilty members of the mob have pooled their resources and have assembled a kitty of $500 for Martin’s widow…which Gil and Art plan to take to her along with her late husband’s last letter.  And thus the curtain falls on one of the greatest movie westerns of all time.

I first saw The Ox-Bow Incident during my carefree days as a CSR at Ballbuster Blockbuster Video, and it’s a film that I revisit quite often.  As I previously stated, it’s the movie that first comes to mind when I think of Harry Davenport—and his Arthur Davies, a man of unshakable decency, is truly one of my favorite movie characters.  It’s a sad commentary that Davies, who insists on observing the procedures and niceties of the judicial system, is dismissed by the bloodthirsty Farnley as a “whining old woman” simply because he’s convinced nothing good can come of a group of people going off half-cocked.  (I also admire how the character of Sparks, an African-American man of deep religious faith, is positively portrayed as the man who is first to stand with Davies when the “vote” is taken as to whether or not Martin and his friends will be lynched.  In one scene, Sparks relates to Gil how he witnessed as a young boy his own brother being lynched; when Gil asks him if his brother was guilty, Sparks replies: “I don’t know…nobody never did know for sure.”)

The Ox-Bow Incident was a pet project for actor Henry Fonda and its director, William Wellman; both men promised Darryl F. Zanuck they’d do projects at 20th Century Fox that they weren’t particularly crazy about in order to get his permission to make the film…and when Incident tanked at the box office, Zanuck never missed an opportunity to remind both Fonda and Wellman of their folly.  Thankfully, the passage of time has proved Hank and Wild Bill right—Incident is on numerous lists of the finest cinematic oaters in film history (it was selected for the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1998) and was even nominated for Best Picture (it lost to that movie where Ingrid Bergman gets on the plane).  Featuring a first-rate cast of actors, a powerfully written script by Lamar Trotti and direction by William Wellman that is at times more Gothic melodrama than dry and dusty sagebrush saga, The Ox-Bow Incident features a seventy-six year old Harry Davenport in what remains for me his most memorable screen turn…a diamond of a performance in a diamond of a film.


Rich said...

This sounds really good, but um... if it's based on a novel, why does the poster advertise it as 'true'? That's some shoddy advertising right there.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

if it's based on a novel, why does the poster advertise it as 'true'? That's some shoddy advertising right there.

Plan 9 From Outer Space is also based on "sworn testimony." (Can you prove it didn't happen?)

Caftan Woman said...

The pride of making a fine film shines through in "The Ox-Bow Incident", from the director and the fine ensemble. Davenport, as you say, is outstanding. I could hear his voice as I read your article. He's someone I would like to have known.

PS: I was pleased you got my cheekiness at "resisting the siren call of social security".

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Davenport is one of my very favorites, and so is this film. A good point, and shame on us for too-often forgetting, that the elderly character actors we revere were among those that had to keep at their craft for the sake of survival. How fortunate that back in the day, the studio system allowed them to do that. Well done, Ivan. said...

A really lovely essay on several deserving topics -- the Blogathon theme, "The Ox-Bow Incident", and Davenport (a favorite, instantly recognizable supporting face). Glad to know he was such a stand-up man in real life as well.

Patti said...

Funny that this film "tanked" at the box office. Wonder why? It's a great message movie, with a cast of wonderful stars. I guess you just never know what will appeal to the masses.

I always adore Harry Davenport. While I had wonderful grandfathers and wouldn't have traded either of them for the world, I would like to have had Mr. Davenport as a surrogate, or maybe as an uncle. What a fun, sweet guy he was!

ClassicBecky said...

You did an excellent tribute to one of my favorite actors also. Seeing Harry Davenport on screen gives the feeling of being with an old friend who never lets you down. The Oxbow Incident is, in my opinion, one of the truly great movies. It is so good at what it does that I can't bear to watch it very often, which I usually do with favorite films. Oxbow just upsets me so much with its portrayal of injustice and cruelty. Davenport is perfect in his role. Great choice, Ivan!

Anonymous said...

I had no idea that this film was anything less than a success upon its release; I just assumed no one could fail to love it!
Your opening comments - about why actors chose to continue working in old 'age' - really made me think. Generally, I'm quick to be-moan the lack of roles for older female actress without considering the implications for the actors (lost earnings, boredom etc.) Thanks for reminding me about the other side of the story!


I couldn't know how much can go in only 75 minutes until I watched this film. Wow.
Yet Henry Fonda was the highlight for me, I have to agree that Davenport is also shinig. Thanks for the extra information about him, and actor I always like to spot in supporting roles.
Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

Anonymous said...

If you've ever read the book, Davenport fits the character's description to a tee.

For me, Davenport gave so many wonderful performances, I couldn't pick just one favorite: the grandfather in MEET ME IN ST LOUIS, the professor in TALES OF MANHATTAN, the doctor in THE FARMER'S DAUGHTER...