22 August, 2013

San Antonio

           Let’s get right into it.

          San Antonio (1945)
          w Alan Le May & W.R. Burnett
          d David Butler

          Hans Wollstein wrote, “Much better than its reputation, San Antonio, in glorious Technicolor, is a slam-bang, no-nonsense Western filled with stand-out action sequences and performances.  Although often negatively compared to Errol Flynn's earlier Warner epics [most notably Dodge City], San Antonio -- with sweeping tracking shots contrasted by more intimate but equally dramatic character delineation -- stands on [its] own merits.  The great Warner stock company, including French import Victor Francen and a quietly menacing Paul Kelly, adds to the overall tenor of the film, as does Max Steiner's grand score.  Garbed by Milo Anderson, heroine Alexis Smith is a sight for sore eyes and imbues her stock assignment with more gusto than you would ordinarily expect.  Among the other highlights are veteran B-Western Star Tom Tyler … and a climactic gunfight that seamlessly progresses from Francen's posh saloon into the streets to culminate, inevitably, in the ruined Alamo.  All, of course, staged to maximum effect by Director David Butler.”
And I know I’m going to get at least some flack for today’s film.  Choosing it over The Sea Hawk and Gentleman Jim;  perhaps especially Captain Blood?  

               Well, to start off, something personal.
Whenever I played cowboy as a kid -- am I of the last generation to play cowboy as a kid? -- I wore my gun backward because of Clay Hardin (Flynn’s character in this movie).  Sure, Wild Bill Elliott wore his that way first, and I knew that, but when I first saw this movie -- Flynn on this screen cooler in a cowboy hat than even Steve McQueen -- well that was it.  And, as I wrote in the Desperate Journey review, so many films resonate based on when you see them.  Yes, I “grew up” in the thirties and forties -- for those of you that knew my parents, these were the movies I watched growing up -- so these are the movies that genuinely mean something to me.  Seeing them as a kid?  You bet that stays with you.  So is Desperate Journey or San Antonio landmark cinema?  Up to you.  But there’s no doubt they’re both great movies.

And -- again as I wrote in my “Bob Hope Top 5” -- it isn’t always about the story as it is about the movie.  And this is Flynn's.  You know what a Woody Allen or James Bond is going to be before the opening credits roll.  That’s why you’re there.  (And, remember, they made sixty-six Hopalong Cassidy features -- sixty-six features -- so, sure, Hollywood had a handle on how to handle its stars.)  You pay your ticket because it’s theirs.  And Errol Flynn is the same way.  It’s a star vehicle of the thirties and forties.  “What are you going to see tonight?”  “The new Errol Flynn!”  And that was, wonderfully, enough. 
While San Antonio is often thought of as “light,” I think Director David Butler’s handling is spot-on for the kind of film it set out to be.  And, class, let’s read that again if we need to:  the kind of film it set out to be.  Even given the Writers they hired, Warner Bros didn’t set out to make The Gunfighter or The Searchers -- both stunning dramatics -- but rather an Errol Flynn western.  And what Flynn western would take itself too seriously?  (Again, I don’t consider They Died With Their Boots On a “Western.”)  Our film today has great story and action, but it’s the fun of it that makes it work so well;  viz Tom Tyler’s shoot-out.  And Butler -- coming from Bob Hope’s The Road To Morocco, You Got Me Covered and The Princess And The Pirate, as well as the oft-missed Kay Kyser hit You’ll Find Out (and great title, that) -- does a great job balancing the drama, action and humor.
Speaking of how they told the story, how about who?  After all, what write-up of mine wouldn’t touch on the back-stage?  Co-Writer Alan Le May started in films with none other than Cecil B. De Mille on North West Mounted Police.  And if that’s a great beginning, Mr. Le May would all but end with none other than John Ford on his classic The Searchers.  Co-Writer W.R. Burnett started in rewrites on the 1932 Scarface and would go on to write the novel and screenplay for High Sierra, the story for Yellow Sky and the classic The Great Escape.
If I get a complaint in these Top 5s of mine it’s that I’m too congratulatory.  But, again, I’m not doing A Critique, but commenting on my favorites of so-and-so.  So of course I come into them as a fan.  If I wanted to really critique something, well, I just wouldn’t enjoy it.  (Who wants to write-up five Brett Ratners?)  But I will acknowledge one of the major critiques of our film today, and that is its score. 
Now let me be clear:  the score itself is great.
But it was used before.
I’m of course talking about the theme, so easily hummable -- it’s a word -- because the incomporable Max Steiner used it before in (yep, Flynn’s own) Dodge City.  And that film -- a huge hit;  Warner Bros was trying to replicate its success here -- well, imagine the theme for Superman playing while Rocky runs up those steps.  Yes, it was that recognizable. 
So there.  I critiqued something.
But while we’re here, let’s talk a little bit about how incomporable Mr. Steiner was.  He was trained by Johannes Brahms and Robert Fuchs.  He conducted his first operetta when he was twelve, and became a full-time professional -- either composing, arranging or conducting music -- when he was fifteen.  Often referred to as “the father of film music” -- along with Erich Wolfgang Korngold (The Adventures Of Robin Hood) and Franz Waxman (Objective Burma) -- literally created the language of writing Scores.
The language?
He introduced the idea of film themes -- characters and situations having their own -- throughout three hundred scores in his career with RKO and Warner Brothers and was nominated for twenty four Academy Awards, winning three;  interestingly, none of which for his two most famous, Casablanca and Gone With The Wind.  His breakthrough performance?  Just a little film called King Kong.  He was the first recipient of The Golden Globe for Best Original Score, and worked with Michael Curtiz, John Ford and William Wyler.  Mr. Steiner himself once said, “I've always tried to subordinate myself to the picture.  My theory is that the music should be felt rather than heard.”  When The American Film Institute ranked their 25 Greatest Scores, Mr. Steiner had two of them.  And perhaps his biggest fan?  Mr. John Williams.  Indeed, over those three hundred themes, we feel him in every one.
(And the song "Some Sunday Morning" -- written for San Antonio and nominated for The Academy Award -- went on to be a hit record for numerous singers including Frank Sinatra, Helen Forrest and Dick Haymes.)
While we’re in trivia mode, the character Bozic -- played by the always great S. Z. "Cuddles" Sakall, perhaps best known for Casablanca, though I love him in Danny Kaye’s Wonder Man (that film coming up in Mr. Kaye’s Top 5) -- makes the joke about a riderless horse as “an empty horse.”  This is a reference to Director Michael Curtiz (not our Director today, but you remember him).  When wanting to see stray horses wandering through the infamous battle scene in (yep, Flynn’s) Charge Of The Light Brigade, Curtiz directed the wranglers to "Bring on the empty horses."  Flynn and David Niven cracked up laughing, infuriating Curtiz.  Niven later made this "Curtizism" immortal by titling a volume of his autobiography, "Bring on the empty horses."

Last but not least, I have to talk a little bit here about that other great Flynn film;  the one that almost knocked San Antonio off this list:  Gentleman Jim (coincidentally co-starring Alexis Smith, three years prior to ours today).  Gentleman Jim is without question a good movie but, again, this is my Top 5 and all Top-Anythings are subjective, aren’t they?  Another Flynn-Raoul Walsh collaboration -- remember they made seven films together -- Gentleman Jim is one of the rare moments where we get to see a sincerely serious Flynn on screen.  And I mean that, “sincerely serious.”  Sure, we know the “fun” Flynn of Robin Hood and Desperate Journey and even a melodramatically seriousness in The Private Lives Of Elizabeth And Essex (one of my favorite Bette Davis pictures) and the playful seriousness of The Adventures Of Don Juan (in my opinion, the end of his era) but Gentleman Jim -- like Objective Burma -- lets him be serious for a bit.  Where we care for him instead of just cheering for him.  Particularly moving is the end of the film -- sorry, spoiler?  Not really -- where he has the conversation with Ward Bond.  It’s genuinely moving.  
A 2008 review of San Antonio wrote, “[This] lavish Warner Brothers western qualifies as an above average frontier fracas, probably the last really top-notch oater that Flynn made.  [Incidentally, Flynn, Smith and Sakall reassembled for Montana in 1950.  But, no, that one’s not top-notch.]  While many feel Smith was not as compatible the way Olivia de Havilland was in their films together, Flynn fans will enjoy [their] cheerful banter here.  And her knock-out tune [“Some Sunday Morning”] bolsters the movie and improves with each viewing.  San Antonio ranks at the very least as an all around good looking western.”


               So, in wrapping up --
Why Errol Flynn?
That was how we began these Top 5s -- remember that’s what Lawrence Bassoff was asked when he produced his book, “Errol Flynn:  The Movie Posters” -- so it’s appropriate to book-end here.  After so much has been written about the Australian actor -- better writing than my drivel -- why do any of us still write about him at all?  Bassoff’s answer may still be the best:

“Because he’s never been replaced.”

Sure, we have Harrison Ford and Tom Cruise and George Clooney.  (And for humored action I admittedly love Dwayne Johnson.)  But Errol Flynn?  No, I don’t think he can be replaced.  We’ve said he’s the swashbuckler -- and I’ll stand by that -- but let’s face it -- even considering both Fairbanks -- Mr. Flynn is the High Adventure Star of The Silver Screen.  And, as “Jimmy” Stewart Granger wrote in Basoff’s book, I too get annoyed when people disparage Flynn’s work.  Because it is just jealousy.  Because that guy up there on that screen, swashbuckling with pirates or shooting it out with Nazis and Cowboys, well … that’s a hell of a life.
Near the end of his -- remember he was only fifty -- Flynn himself said, “If I have added a bit of happiness to a lonely life, or added a bit of color to a drab world, then maybe my life has not been in vain.”
               No, dear sir, you still haven’t been replaced.

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