I watch far more movies than I write about, and that frustrates me sometimes. Plenty of films that I see aren't worth writing about, but that still leaves more than I can give the full Mondo 70 treatment. Some have points of interest that don't justify the whole treatment., yet deserve some sort of mention. Most of these films are titles I record on my DVR off Turner Classic Movies or, less often, Fox Movie Channel. When I finally got a DVR last fall I rejoiced over never missing a movie again, yet the thing now strikes me sometimes as an burden, simply because there's so much to record off TCM alone that I'm constantly fighting to whittle down my queue while my DVDs gather dust and promising items at the library go ignored. The least I can do is leave a more complete record of my viewing habits, and so the DVR Diary is my latest attempt at short-form reviews. There's no word limit in my head right now, but the idea is to get these done quickly and with a minimum of illustration. Let's see how I manage.
The Diary begins with one of William A. Wellman's lesser-known features, one that Robert Osborne cited for anticipating John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (or Fort Apache, for that matter) with a sort of "print the legend" finish. Osborne's point is duly noted, and I'd note some inspiration from Citizen Kane in the Wellman's ambitious art direction and the biographical gimmick, but The Great Man's Lady strikes me most as the missing link between Cimarron and Little Big Man. Like Cimarron, this film invites our sympathy for a pioneer woman whose husband goes away for long stretches of the picture, while like Little Big Man the tale is tole by a superannuated survivor of great events -- the same pioneer woman (Barbara Stanwyck) as a miraculously articulate centenarian besieged by reporters on the occasion of the unveiling of a statue to the founder of Hoyt City, Ethan Hoyt (Joel McCrea), to whom the old lady, Hannah Sempler, claims to have been married. The claim itself scandalizes the community, since it would appear to render the great and beloved Hoyt a bigamist, but Hannah's whole story, given up reluctantly to a would-be biographer who cries after her initial refusal, makes Hoyt a less heroic personality, even as Hannah confirms all his famed accomplishments. In her account, which the film itself presents as unquestionable, Ethan is often stupid, stubborn, vicious and craven, and just as often bolstered, backed up and pushed forward by Hannah's long-suffering self. The "print the legend" part comes in when Hannah and the biographer agree that Hoyt's heroic image is more useful to the community, and in the end the old lady tears up the marriage certificate that'd prove her claim while affirming her eternal love for Hoyt.
Hannah's story is a melodramatic ordeal of separations and renunciations, the pathetic climax coming when she loses her twin babies as a flood washes away a bridge with her stagecoach, a disaster that convinces Ethan of Hannah's own death and leads him to remarry. It's the sort of life story that's too bad to be true, and Wellman's play for pathos rings hollow too often. He's less interested in debunking any myth of a heroic Westerner than in honoring the ladies who stand behind every great man and every ordinary guy, according to the preface. Wellman wants to eat his cake and have it too, combining satire with patriotic epic, and the result is a little too sweet, yet unfilling. Given a hopeless role, McCrea is blown off the screen by Stanwyck in one of her first western matriarch roles. Poor McCrea effectively takes second place among males to Brian Donlevy, who plays a character type apparently dear to Wellman's heart, the honest rogue. Bruce Cabot played a rough draft of this type as the virtuous saloonkeeper in The Robin Hood of El Dorado. Here, Donlevy is a gambler and eventual casino owner -- evil incarnate in the usual Western of the period -- redeemed by his honesty (he tells customers up front that the games are rigged and they can't win) and non-violent nature. As in El Dorado, Wellman prefers the archetypal bloodsucker of melodrama to the often-ruthless pioneer, but here he goes to far to make Donleavy's gambler a self-denying saint if not a kind of Christ figure -- he's shot down by McCrea, who blames him for Stanwyck's death, only to rise again and resume his good-hearted huckstering. He could have been Stanwyck's true love but is too decent to press his claim. Arch-heel Donlevy is almost perversely cast against type in a manner that embodies this film's awkward unorthodoxy. He's the picture's unsung hero, but he still can't get the girl. Everyone else sacrifices so McCrea's character can succeed, and we're supposed to be happy for them and McCrea and the people who worship Ethan Hoyt. Maybe that was a message people wanted to see with World War II under way, but I can't help wondering whether Wellman would have made a better, more biting film a decade earlier at his Pre-Code peak.