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August 08, 2017

Duel in the Sun

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King Vidor - 1946
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

One immediate bit of irony is that in the opening credit's, the film is listed as King Vidor's Duel in the Sun, when the reality of the production is that Vidor walked off the set, and several other directors helped in the completion. Notoriously hands on as the producer, David O. Selznick also claimed sole screenwriting credit as well. All things considered, including the post-production editing forced to limit, if not eliminate the erotic content, it's a tribute to all involved that Duel in the Sun remained mostly coherent and cohesive in its final form.

For all of his involvement in the production, David O. Selznick seemed oblivious to his group of characters who essentially allow their misguided sense of pride cause their own undoings. Selznick's hope of topping the massive success of Gone with the Wind was his main motivation in producing Duel. Between the cost of production, the publicity campaign, and Selznick being forced to distribute the film himself, Duel became of harbinger of what has become a fairly standard practice in Hollywood, the big budget film that ultimately breaks even or shows a modest profit. It would take one last attempt at big budget filmmaking with A Farewell to Arms, costly and barely profitable, to end Selznick's career as a producer at the relatively young age of 55.

Based loosely on a novel by Niven Busch, the story is about a young woman, Pearl Chavez, half-white, half-Native American, orphaned and left to the care of her father's second cousin, Laura Belle. The cousin is the wife of land baron Jackson McCanles, and mother to sons Jesse and Lewt. Lewt is short for Lewton, but almost a homophone for lewd. The main story is about class and race, mostly centered on the love-hate relationship between Pearl and Lewt, leading up to the climatic finish.

Seen outside of the context of the year of production, and various conventions that were part of Hollywood film production, some might miss what all the fuss was about. In its own way, Duel in the Sun is almost as fantastic as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. The opening scene features the very British Herbert Marshall as the Creole gambler, Scott Chavez, married to a Native American played by the very bronzed Tilly Losch. Losch performs a dance at a cantina the size of Grand Central Station, kicking up her heels for a mob of very appreciative cowboys. Following her performance, Losch hooks up with her lover, the stocky Sidney Blackmer. Cesar Romero and Anthony Quinn would have been more appropriately cast here. Fortunately, the odd rivalry of Marshall and Blackmer is a short scene, quickly forgotten once the film moves to the main setting of the McCanles Ranch.

Seeing Jennifer Jones as half Native American, with slightly bronzed make-up goes with an era when we were suppose to believe that Jeanne Crain was a light skinned African American in Pinky, filmed two years later. This is one of Jones' most memorable roles as it was also her most expressive physically, fighting conflicting impulses to be a "good girl" or reclaiming her sexuality. As Lewt, Gregory Peck almost steals the film as a mostly likable punk who ends up destroying his family, Pearl, and himself. One image says it all when Pearl is walking to her bedroom, and Lewt is standing in the shadows, leaning against the wall, smoking a cigarette, with the hint of a smile. Sure, Lewt rapes Pearl, derails a train carrying explosives, and shoots the upstanding brother, Jesse, played by Joseph Cotten, but none of those things matter when watching Jennifer Jones claw her way through rocks and sand for that final clinch with Peck.

A side note here: Almost a decade later, Jones would again play a racially mixed woman, half-Asian, in Love is a Many Splendored Thing, while at Peck's insistence his romantic interest in The Purple Plain was portrayed by a half-Asian actress, rather than someone in "yellow face".

The blu-ray is as complete a version as we will likely see unless excised footage is discovered and restored. Among the scenes of legend are a dance performed by Pearl for Lewt that was considered too erotic by the production code office, as well as shots of Pearl attempting to fight off Lewt prior to surrendering to him. There is the overture and prelude, that the audience heard in the initial road show presentations, as well as music heard after the end of the film. For those who might not be familiar with the concept of the roadshow movie, there was a time when some big budget films were shown with a limited number of performances, usually a matinee and evening show, higher admission costs, and sometimes reserved seating.

The commentary track by Gaylyn Studlar is especially useful in identifying what parts of Duel in the Sun were directed by King Vidor, and those parts handled by William Dieterle, Otto Brower, William Cameron Menzies, and possibly Josef von Sternberg as well as Selznick. Unsurprisingly, some of the overhead traveling shots as well as long shots with the characters seen in silhouette will recall similar visual work in Gone with the Wind. Gregory Peck's children share their recollections of their father's work on the film and his friendships with King Vidor and Jennifer Jones in the other supplement of note.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 8, 2017 06:45 AM