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The Trail of the Lonesome Pine Review

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by Chris McEneany Apr 7, 2009

    The Trail of the Lonesome Pine Review

    Right, let's get one thing clear - this film has nothing to do with Laurel And Hardy, okay?

    Henry Hathaway's dazzling frontier drama from 1936 marks a bravura early performance from Henry Fonda, sumptuous three-strip Technicolor and a pretty vivid depiction of the trials and tribulations of America's pioneering days at the turn of the 20th Century. The first time that this emblazoned colour approach had been utilised for a production outside of a studio set, The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine was the winner of a Special Recommendation at the 1936 Venice Film Festival, but although nominated for an Academy Award for its original music and songs, it lost out to George Stevens' Swing Time. Somewhat overlooked these days and certainly over-shadowed by later Technicolor marvels such as Gone With The Wind, Quo Vadis and The Robe, this exuberant semi-Western is well worth discovering.

    Hathaway was already an accomplished director, with The Lives Of A Bengal Lancer and earlier mountain-movie, Man Of The Forest with Randolph Scott, to his credit, and his profoundly visual approach to movie-making was to enjoy its most splendid opportunity with this outdoors yarn of passion and treachery until he got into the saddle with John Wayne for the likes of The Sons Of Katie Elder and True Grit a lot later in his career. With an excellent cast - his two leads were definitely on the up and up and the supporting roster was eminently reliable and just as colourful as the picture - he was able to conjure wilderness realism, strong characters and a narrative that joyfully see-sawed between jovial slapstick and rugged drama.

    “Did they getcha, David?”

    “No Falin could ever git me, Uncle Jud!”

    The story is a ripe melodrama mingling tough talk, comedy, knockabout fisticuffs and familial odyssey, all set against the majestic backdrop of the Kentucky mountains. Based on the novel of the same name from John Fox Jnr, and adapted for the screen by Grover Jones, we have the bitter ongoing feud between two hill-dwelling families - the Tollivers and the Falins - and its violent escalation during a time of advancing civilisation in the form of Fred MacMurray's railroad company, who have set up camp smack-bang in-between the two warring clans. As heroic engineer Jack Hale, MacMurray forms the backbone of a plot that sees Henry Fonda's taciturn Dave Tolliver love, lose, and love again his cousin June (a spirited Sylvia Sidney) and regain his honour and redemption through a catalogue of loss and regret, and Jack's own small-scale prejudices get turned on their head by the deeds and customs of these simple hill-folk. When June falls for Jack's educated and practical charms, Dave's earthy demeanour and ill-fated blood-lust for his neighbours across the valley loses its mythical magic, and the family begins to come apart at the seams. June sees a chance to better herself and a weird sort of love triangle develops. Ma (Beulah Bondi) wants the fighting to stop. Pop (Fred Stone) just wants the family to stay together, ignorant of the staleness that his traditions have inflicted upon it. Somewhere along the way, a powder-keg has been lit and the resulting explosion will either tear the Tollivers apart or clear the air, once and for all.

    It's an Old School yarn, to be sure, but its moralistic standpoint is cleverly skewed, and Hathaway makes sure to allow plenty of incident to tumble down the mountainside on the way to its poetically cathartic denouement.

    I've never been a fan of Henry Fonda. Despite all those earnest roles that he's played, I've always found him to be a kind of creepy actor. That skeletal face, those intense eyes and the sour line delivery that he often adopted leaving me cold to his plight, no matter how sympathetic I should be towards the man he is essaying. About the only time I have ever truly accepted him was when he actually bit the bullet and played a bad guy right up-front, in Sergio Leone's awesome Once Upon A Time In The West. This is a purely personal thing, of course. I realise that he is still a wonderful actor - perhaps far more so than I give him credit for being, and probably for exactly the same reason that I find him somewhat uncomfortable to warm to. Even when portraying a decent, God-fearing fellow, he manages to eschew every stereotypical cliché because he adds this darker, more sarcastic and hard done-to element of flawed reality. Look at My Darling Clementine, John Ford's classic Wyatt Earp picture - with Victor Mature as a terrific Doc Holliday - to see what I mean about this proud American hero and Hollywood idol adding a layer of tension, vulnerability and even madness. Fonda has a calculating and coldly methodical manner that marks him apart from other contemporary leading men of his era. As Dave Tolliver, he almost comes across as the villain of the piece - which he is not at all. Yet, right from the word go, his acerbic drawl and hard-nosed attitude leaves you under no illusion that this woodsman is never going to be a bundle of laughs to be around. Yet there are definite moments when he produces some finely reined-in emotions and, come the finale, he will have attained such a folkloric stature of indomitable spirit that it is hard to be moved by it.

    But, as I implied earlier, the film is carried more by MacMurray than by Fonda. The stalwart of many a noir, with the classic Double Indemnity standing out by a clear mile, MacMurray is totally at ease here as the big city hot-shot - his Jack is full of spiel, smiling know-how and a gift of the gab that can't help but see him run rings around the bumpkins. Yet the script opts to make him a lot more accessible and rounded than you might have thought his prime mover and shaker would be. His opening gambit about buying up the Tolliver's land is made much more plausible and his own character more endearing by both his playful fascination of June's impromptu mud-bath and his quick-thinking practicality in saving Dave's life after a Falin bullet has turned his arm gangrenous. His strangely honest and beguiling nature is totally at odds with the usual, money-hungry, land-grabbing businessman who would normally be portrayed as some invading infidel that the warring clans would unite to drive off, providing him with a true “prosperity for all” sort of allure. Rarely playing a bad boy - only Billy Wilder was able to get him to slink from beneath that nice-guy image with the critical hits of Double Indemnity and The Apartment - he is actually quite forceful and strong even when assuming his more common bread and butter genial roles. Jack never sets out to steal anybody's woman and he truly comes to care for the entire Tolliver family. His motivations are simple - he wants to build a railroad - but his methods are anything but self-centred. He becomes the conduit - wanted or not - for these cut-off communities to learn and grow. Once again, great American knowledge and technology is thrust upon a more primitive society, but in Hathaway's hands, the meeting is mutually beneficial, although the transition will still be painful.

    “Fist-fightin' will do no harm. Gun-totin' just won't go. No hard feelin'?”

    Fred Stone is terrific as the mammoth-snouted Judd Tolliver, full of loveable spit and whiskers, and down-to-earth as the ostensible leader of the Tolliver clan. However, since we are siding with this bunch, we can clearly see that he is nothing but a big softie at heart and his one moment of patriarchal sternness is credibly and movingly lost in the very next second, when we see him visibly crumble at his daughter's coming-of-age ability to make up her own mind even if it means going against his best intentions. Stone has the type of face and acting style that makes you think you've seen him in a thousand movies, playing nothing but gruff yokels - but this couldn't be further from the truth. He really only made a handful of films and most of these were riding on the shirt-tails of his performance here. But he is certainly a winning ingredient, perfectly embodying the grass-roots loyalty of a man who has no love for, nor apparent need for the outside world. Grandfatherly and amusing, he even makes his first encounter with a newfangled telephone a richer moment by virtue of his convincing unfamiliarity with it. Local crooner and adorable layabout, Tater (played by the wonderfully monikered Fuzzy Knight), wanders the woods with a song in his heart and a mouth as big as the Grand Canyon. His several misty-mountain ballads may stick out like a sore thumb, but in two pivotal scenes he nearly steals the show with his brilliant comic timing and rascally heroism.

    Also caught up in all of this check-shirted shenanigans is one of Cinema's greatest bumbling buffoons, Nigel Bruce, who is not as daft as he would later become in virtually everything else that he would appear in. But fans of his blathering Dr. Watson to Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes can rest assured that he is still the dithering fusspot of the piece as Jack's business partner, Thurber. However, there is one scene towards the end when, with just a haunted look on his face and a faint tear tracing a line down it, he actually winds up pilfering the emotional thunder from a very sombre sequence indeed. It is little things like this that reveal our enduring image of such character actors as Bruce to be ... well, incomplete, to say the least.

    The direction and the photography is top-notch. Hathaway loves his environment and goes walkabout often, treating us to Robert C. Bruce's fantastically framed vistas and the evocative visual beauty of California's Big Bear Lake and the San Bernardino National Forest which are beautifully standing-in for the Kentucky mountains. Bruce favours experimental tracking shots and deep focus photography. Swift sideways pans and intuitive set-ups - for example, look at the shot of Thurber sitting in left foreground in his tent, whilst seen far right, through a gap in the entrance flap, is a worker resting in his own tent a long way off - ensure that the film always feels alive. Over and above the spellbinding colours, it seems positively vibrant with its highly mobile cameras and intriguing use of picturesque locations. But it is down to W. Howard Greene that the film manages to stake its claim as Paramount's first Technicolor feature and the premier production to take the process out beyond the studio sets. Having already supplied the pioneering work for the colour sequences on 1925's Ben-Hur and the wonderful double-bill of classic two-colour horrors for Michael Curtis, Doctor X in 1932 , and the original version of Mystery Of The Wax Museum in 1933, Greene was certainly the man for the job. Now working with three-strip Technicolor, he proved the scoffing critics wrong when they insisted that the process couldn't be controlled with the addition of the natural light to be found outdoors. The splendid log cabins are wonderfully enticing, too and look totally sturdy and comfortable. The Tollivers even have a majestic water-wheel that adds a terrific visual dimension to a couple of scenes. I'm not so sure about the blink and you'll miss it Winter-time montage, though. Personally, I would have loved more snowbound footage.

    Even though they went uncredited, Gerard Carbonara and the great Hugo Friedhofer supplied a suitably raucous and ballsy score for the film. Friedhofer would go on to compose classic scores for Gregory Peck's dark revenger in The Bravados (alongside Alfred Newman), Sophia Loren's American movie-debut in Boy On A Dolphin and the interesting Steve McQueen/Frank Sinatra combo in the WWII drama, Never So Few - but he was one of those people who seemed to shun the limelight, often helping to propel other composers to fame. His collaboration here, with Carbonara, is lusty and full-blooded, mingling rustic charm with the surging sweep of the wild.

    Thus, with all these luminaries on-board, Lonesome Pine had a wonderful roster of professionals behind the camera as well in front of it.

    It is refreshing to see such a highly romanticised view of hill-folk being depicted, especially after years of enduring red-neck cannibals, inbred mutants and primitive psychopaths maiming and torturing trespassers on their land. The Tollivers and the Falins (led by swarthy ogre Henry Brandon, who would go on to become infamous as the vicious Comanche chief, Scar, in John Ford's immortal The Searchers) may be lumpen, back-breaking precursors to the likes of the Clampets, and even the Dingles of Emmerdale (!), but there is a queer sense of pride and honour, and an admirable resilience to their commitment to furthering a feud the cause of which both sides have almost entirely forgotten about. With its whirling punch-ups in the dust, dynamite-murders, aggrieved stand-offs and pine-log sniper-shots, The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine doesn't forget to add lots of action to its already packed itinerary ... making this vintage drama a Technicolored breath of fresh air.