Monday, May 30, 2011

High, Wide And Handsome

Our handsome couple - Irene and Randolph Scott 

Release date 07.21.1937

"Can I forget you? Or will my heart remind me that once we walked in a moonlit dream?...
Will the glory of your nearness fade, as moonlight fades in the vail of rain?
Can I forget you, when everything reminds me how much I want you back again."

Today is an evening of entertainment for the little Western Pennsylvania town, because a medicine show visits the community. While Sally Watterson (Irene) sings her father (Raymond Walburn) tries to sell his universal remedy to the inhabitants; that their wagon catches fire is an unintentional enrichment to the spectacle and leaves Sally and her father stranded. Fortunately handsome farmer Peter Cortland (Randolph Scott) is at hand, and he and his grandmother (Elizabeth Patterson) take the homeless, "wagonless" folks in. Well, to build a new home on wheels needs some time, at least enough for Sally and Peter to fall in love.

The medicine show

Peter, who in his spare time drills for oil, exactly hits a well on their wedding day and the festive gathering is completely drained by an oily rain. Something similar happens to Sally and Peter’s marriage – preoccupied with the petroleum boom which spreads over the land, Peter neglects his wife. All gets worse when the farmers under the guidance of Peter try to boycott the railroad company that blackmailed them into immense freight rates to get their oil to the refineries. Looking for another way of transportation Peter has the idea to build a pipeline, an enormous project, which not only costs him his whole time but the hill where he and Sally wanted to erect their future home. That´s the last straw for Sally and she runs away with a Carnival show… follows a lot of action!

Sally enjoying the pleasures of a real home...

Romance, oil boom, David versus Goliath fight, carnival shows, saloons and shanty bars, barn dances, pipeline construction, marriage troubles, fist-fights, not to mention a couple of beautiful Kern numbers – those are busy 145 minutes. In less capable hands this could have been a disaster of a film but as things are "High, Wide And Handsome" was in just the right hands. In an interview, Irene described director Rouben Mamoulian as a sort of detail fanatic, and this definitely paid off. One beautiful visual tidbit follows the other, and the way how we are thrown into the story – with a close-up of singing Irene – is certainly a treat. How Mamoulian uses the lighting or the effect of showing us a detail at first and then slowly moving back and thus giving way for the whole scenery is worthwhile a closer look. Unfortunately this movie is only available in a blurry print, and I’d love to watch this in a cleared up version and on a real big screen. Mamoulian’s craftsmanship of direction is equally competent and winningly completed and supported by our leads.

Irene and Rouben Mamoulian (with jacket) waiting for the perfect cloud constellation.
In the film that's a very, very short scene but the clouds in the background are simply beautiful!

Not exactly youngsters anymore – both Irene and Randolph Scott were in their late thirties in 1937 – they pull off a touching "young love" and make a very handsome, tender couple. Initially this production was planned with Cary Cooper in the male lead but Randolph Scott took over at short notice. Though I’d appreciate an association of Irene with Cary Cooper because of name dropping reasons, I certainly don’t miss him here. Mr. Scott gives a fine performance and he and Irene complement each other nicely. Irene, who didn’t like that film very much due to several reasons one of them being that her mother died during production, needed the distance of some decades to reconsider her judgment on "High, Wide And Handsome", and to some degree appreciate the film and Randolph Scott’s performance: "I saw it on television here some weeks ago and I didn´t think it was half as bad as I remembered it…But Randy Scott was so much better than I remember him being." (full interview) I hope this new point of view included herself because Irene’s breezy performance is darn joyful to watch. She was indeed too mature for the role – in the last analysis, only counting the years, Irene was too mature for many of her films  - but it simply doesn’t matter.

And here, they are again!

And of course, it’s the combination Dunne-Kern again. Only after I worked on the theatre page for my Irene Dunne website, and hence listened to a lot of the music of that time in the original versions, I fully understood how beautiful Kern’s songs are for Irene’s voice. Her classical educated voice, which sometimes was – and still is for some people – unfamiliar singing "popular" music, shows all its advantages in Kern’s compositions. Especially beautiful is "The Folks Who Live On The Hill" ending with some impressive high notes and deservedly the best known song from "High, Wide And Handsome." Irene obviously loved singing, and to encounter this pure, direct joy coming from a performer whose forte is based on an ultimate, intelligent soberness and rationality is always a wonderfully striking moment.(Here are those songs, and don't miss Irene's live version of "The Folks Who Live On The Hill" in the misc. section of the same page) 

Irene on the set of "High, Wide And Handsome"

Well, a varied story, skillful direction, captivating performances – including the supporting cast, which offers such names as Charles Bickford and young Dorothy Lamour – and Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein in charge of the score, who could ask for anything more? The whole certainly sums up to a gladdening, though sadly underrated piece of entertainment, and shouldn’t be missed.