Monday, March 24, 2014

The Hallelujah Trail


GLORY! GLORY!

Those of my readers who have not yet developed short-term memory problems may recall the saga of my missing Louis Vuitton luggage; it vanished in transit after the last date on my Sink For Your Supper concert tour. I am happy to report that sixty-nine of the seventy two pieces have finally been retrieved and returned to Chateau Maine, just in time for me to repack them for my forthcoming trip to Salina, Utah where I will be appearing with the Polygamy Polyphonic this Saturday. The last three pieces remain, according to US Air officials, 'Lost in Transit'. As the returned pieces have tags that imply a lengthy stay in a left luggage office in Singapore, I am not quite sure what this means. The missing trunks contained an assortment of custom fitting foundation garments; I am, therefore, quite anxious for their ultimate return. Besides, I'm not sure that I can redistribute all the necessaries for my 36-hour trip in the suitcases remaining. Norman has offered to sit on each of my valises in turn to make sure they close. He's always enjoyed tasks where gravity does all the real work.

Norman's managers have come up with a quick guest starring role for him on ER next season. He and I will appear in the same episode. He plays Jonas Sock, a pulmonary patient whose portable iron lung escapes from paramedics as he is being loaded into an ambulance. He rolls down a hill and smashes into a taxi in which my character is riding. I play Helen Lawson, an actress on her way to the theater for another performance in her hit show Valley of the Trolls, when fate deals her this cruel blow. I suffer from serious hair and wig injuries and Norman is trapped inside his iron lung. We're both rushed to the ER where Noah Wyle performs a brilliant operation saving us from certain death. As an added bonus, the makers of Meow Mix are sponsoring the hour and my famous Grizabella commercial where I singMeow Meow to the tune of Memory will also be broadcast repeatedly during the episode. It should be absolutely unforgettable.

It was with a light heart that I headed into the home theater to put up my feet and to indulge in some relaxation before having to cope with Norman's next disimpaction. I was in the mood for a comedy and, as I had happened across the DVD of The Hallelujah Trail in the final sale bin at K-mart last week, I popped that in for a view. The Hallelujah Trail is a comic western, or perhaps a western comedy from the early 60s, when the western, as a form, had reached its zenith and was already starting to decline into self-indulgence and parody. Early in American film history, westerns were low budget programmers, usually shot in the San Fernando Valley with a cast of stock and interchangeable characters. In the late 30s, however, directors such as John Ford began to redefine the western into something else, a uniquely American mythology, full of moral lessons and reflections on humanity. This was aided by the increasing ease of location photography which made the mesas of New Mexico a visual shorthand for certain themes and situations. By the mid 50s, the western created a mythopoetic ethos for the burgeoning 'manifest destiny' of the post war American dream. They reigned at the box office and on television until the changes of the late 60s and 70s made them irrelevant. They've made a bit of a comeback recently as dark elegies ( Unforgiven ) or as period new age 'man in harmony with nature' pieces ( Dances with Wolves) but modern society is too diverse to either require or understand a unifying mythology any longer.

John Sturges, along with John Ford and Howard Hawks, was one of the masters of the operatic western with such films as Gunfight at the OK Corral Bad Day at Black Rock and, most famously, The Magnificent Seven . In 1965, he decided to spoof himself and his epics, using many of the same talents he gathered for his serious works. The result was The Hallelujah Trail – wildly popular in its day, now half forgotten. It's as epic as many of the other westerns and, intermittently, funny as hell.

The year is 1867. As the film opens, the sonorous voice of a narrator (an uncredited John Dehner) preaches of the grandness of the west before wandering off into some loopy non-sequiturs. We learn that the mining town of Denver, Colorado is nearly out of whiskey and winter is coming on and soon the passes will be closed (someone forgot to telegraph in a new order). The miners are frantic. Under the leadership of the Oracle (Donald Pleasance), a grizzled mountain man in bear and coon skin, they order forty wagons of whiskey in a caravan to come into town before the snows cut them off. The wagon train, under the leadership of the merchant Frank Wallingham (Brian Keith), demands army protection from possible Indian raids and the Colonel of the local cavalry detachment (Burt Lancaster) sends an escort under his adjutant (Jim Hutton).

A crusading suffragette/temperance leader, Cora Massingale (Lee Remick), gets wind of the wagon train and is determined to stop it. With the aid of Lancaster's daughter (Pamela Tiffin), she organizes the local ladies into a temperance crusade, determined to intercept the whiskey and destroy it. Lancaster and the rest of the cavalry are obligated to go along to protect them from the dangers of the untamed west. Meanwhile, the local Indian tribes also have designs on the firewater shipment and try to hone in on the action under their chief (Martin Landau). Throw in a group of disaffected Irish teamsters, a Denver citizen's militia, a bunch of romantic complications, and an Indian interpreter who can't translate a word and, when all these worlds collide, you have the stuff of farce.

The comedy here is comedy of character and situation, not the fast paced gag a minute style we have grown accustomed to in recent years. It's much slower to develop and the payoffs are broad sustained smiles, rather than loud guffaws as the talented ensemble cast goes through its paces. It also remains a film of its mid 60s time. The female characters seem to have a never ending supply of false eyelashes, eye shadow and lip stick, even in the wilds of Wyoming and uniforms and gowns are always immaculate and pressed, even after riding all day in a dust storm. I also don't want to think about where a cavalry unit on patrol stores the instruments that appear for an impromptu band concert. Some of the bits are quite dated; especially the treatments of the Indian characters, and the jokes about teamsters on strike don’t resonate, as they would have in the time of Jimmy Hoffa.

The cinematography is by the great Robert Surtees (Oscars for Ben-Hur King Solomon's Mines , and The Bad and the Beautiful ) and he catches all the classic vistas and turns some of the visual clich├ęs on their heads. The score is by Elmer Bernstein and is very reminiscent of his famous score for The Magnificent Seven but with more comic brio – and I defy anyone to watch this movie and not join in singing the Ladies Temperance Rally song at the end.

The actors are playing comic archetypes more than characters and know it; they do so with a wink and high energy. The fun comes from their interaction with each other. Everyone has at least one great moment from Donald Pleasance's confusion as various groups meet unknowing in a sandstorm to Brian Keith's masterful slow burns when things don't go his way, to Lee Remick's stabbing horses with a hatpin with gleeful abandon, to Jim Hutton's trying to get a cavalry squad to protect both their rears to Burt Lancaster's having to deal with constant interruptions while trying to take a bath.

While I enjoyed the film a great deal, the DVD transfer leaves much to be desired. The full film is there in wide screen (including overture, intermission and exit music) but the print used has multiple flaws and streaks. The colors are muddy at times and some scenes are so dark, it's as if you're watching Javanese shadow puppets. There are also annoying jiggles and wiggles that blur the image and some freezes at chapter junctions. The soundtrack, however, seems fine.

Temperance banners. Torchlight parade. Portable piano playing. Couch canoodling. Gratuitous cartoon maps. Indian sign language. Whiskey drinking. Whiskey spilling. Whiskey sinking. Gratuitous bad Irish brogue. Red flannel undergarments. Peace pipe smoking. Champagne cork popping. Multiple bathtubs.


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