DUEL IN THE SUN—– “Deep among the lonely sun-baked hills of Texas, the great and weatherbeaten stone still stands. The Comanches called it Squaw’s Head Rock. Time cannot change its impassive face, nor dim the legend of the wild young lovers who found Heaven and Hell in the shadows of the rock. For when the sun is low and the cold wind blows across the desert, there are those of Indian blood who still speak of Pearl Chavez, the half-breed girl from down along the border, and of the laughing outlaw with whom she kept a final rendezvous, never to be seen again… And this is what the legend says – a flower, known nowhere else, grows from out of the desperate crags where Pearl vanished. Pearl – who was herself a wild flower sprung from the hard clay, quick to blossom and early to die.“
David O. Selznick’s Texas-sized 1947 blockbuster starts off with a gunshot & ricochet, announcing Dimitri Tiomkin’s surging main theme behind the titles, with a portentous opening narration intoned by Orson Welles. Like Big Productions used to do, before the credits comes an Overture. For the ambitious producer, that two minute sally wasn’t enough, so he had Tiomkin compose a ‘Prelude’ to play ahead of the Overture—and this symphonic entrance runs nine minutes: when all the musical flourishes conclude we’ve been sonically clobbered for fourteen minutes before the actors start chewing up things, spittin’ out “Lust in The Dust”. *
Throughout, such overkill marks the 138 minutes, the grandiosity befitting the Texas-sized piñata whacking of a once-simple project that sprawled from its original million-dollar budget to an astronomical $7,300,000. By the time it packed theaters in summer of ’47 the production squabbles, industry strikes, studio balking, censor & Church condemnation, and a massive publicity campaign had ultimately outspent Selznick’s mighty Gone With The Wind to become the most expensive film yet made. **
What do you get for all the moola & hoopla? A dramatically overcooked script and performances ranging from engagingly hammy to flagrantly awful. Hard-breathing, suggestive trash, dime novel sentiment, ripe corn. It’s also fun in a nostalgic vein, and frequently dazzling, with some memorable action set-pieces,and is blessed from open to close with stunningly gorgeous Technicolor cinematography. In its own arresting and eye-watering, gauche and jaw-dropping way, securely Legendary.
Mixed-blood ‘Pearl Chavez’ (Jennifer Jones), untutored orphan and untamed hellcat-vixen, is literally kissing cousin to the rich McCanles brood. Crass, bitter, crippled bigot and former senator ‘Jackson’ (Lionel Barrymore, on steroids) and placid, saintly-sweet ‘Laura Belle’ (Lillian Gish, hearkening back to her Silent days) have two sons: upright, courtly, dull-as-a-puddle ‘Jesse’ (Joseph Cotten), and gleefully sinister, carnally inclined ‘Lewt’ (Gregory Peck, a lanky 29). Which way will sparks fly?
After Oliver H.P. Garrett adapted Niven Busch’s novel, Selznick took over writing the script, which is florid with enough ripe dialogue and outrageous behavior to make a mule blush. Determined to make something for legacy beyond Scarlett, Rhett and Tara, Selznick took over every aspect he could, and ultimately drove fed-up director King Vidor to quit. William Dieterle took over, sans credit, and there were added contributions from five other pros.
Modern audiences may be uncomfortable with the characters attitudes toward race, and find Butterfly McQueen’s ‘Vashti’ hard to take. Her character (which, to her credit, she does really well) is an extension of the dimwit ‘Prissy’ she played in Gone With The Wind. Cotten’s ‘Jesse’ is another version of Ashley Wilkes (about as much fun), while Jones ‘Pearl’ and Peck’s ‘Lewt’ make Scarlett & Rhett look tame. Peck seems to be having a great time, playing against the respectable type he’d already established (this was his 7th film), and does some fancy riding. He also gets to demolish a train for the ornery heck of it, and be about as no-good as one of the Wild Bunch. Barrymore growls it big (his venomous ‘Mr. Potter’ from It’s A Wonderful Life was out at the same time). Gish is asked to be so syrupy it may provoke a sugar reaction.
Solid actors valiantly fighting the dialogue in smaller roles include Charles Bickford, Herbert Marshall and Harry Carey. Best of the whole lot, and fully getting with the flesh tone, is the great Walter Huston as ‘The Sinkiller’, a charlatan Bible-thumper.
“Under that heathen blanket, there’s a full-blossomed woman built by the devil to drive men crazy.”
And then…there’s Jennifer Jones. Wow. Selznick’s 26-year old lover blasted away the ‘nice girl’ image he’d established for her since The Song of Bernadette by making Pearl (add Mestizo skin-darkening makeup) one of the most overheated vamps in movie history. Jones could be quite good (The Song Of Bernadette, Cluny Brown, Portrait Of Jennie, Tender Is The Night) and she could be trying (Since You Went Away, A Farewell To Arms—okay, not trying there, but terrible), but this western wingding is truly emotion run riot. Priceless Bad. Somehow (“producer power on line 1”) she was Oscar-nominated for this—her 4th in a row, but that’s simply farcical. She’s got the Wanton Look aspect down, fer dang sure.
Apart from the famous dirt-clawing finale, highlights include a bravura opening sequence with a bizarre dance number by Tilly Losch (playing Pearl’s lusty Indian mother) that’s wonderfully cinematic but authentically closer to a wild Cossack revelry than anything a Tex-Mex border town would have ginned up; the spectacular gathering of hundreds of horsemen riding pell-mell toward the railroad, the Peck-wreck of the train. All this largess took the obsessive producer more than a year after filming stopped to trim down many hours worth of material into a bearable running time.
Reviews were dire, receipts were gigantic: it made $23,900,000 domestically, more abroad. Revised for inflation, in 2017 terms it grossed $455,000,000.
With Otto Kruger, Joan Tetzel, Sidney Blackmer, Charles Dingle and Scott McKay. Helping Selznick direct: Otto Brewer, B.Reeves Eason, Sidney Franklin, William Cameron Menzies and Joseph von Sternberg. Manning cinematography: Lee Garmes, Ray Rennahan and Harold Rosson. Filmed in California and many locations around Arizona.
* Ukraine-born Dimitri Tiomkin (1894-1979) scored The Westerner, his first frontier frolic, in 1940, but the success of Duel In The Sun and 1948s Red River set him on the trail as the pre-eminent composer for that most American genre. He wrote in “Please Don’t Hate Me”, his autobiography, “A steppe is a steppe is a steppe. . . . The problems of the cowboy and the Cossack are very similar. They share a love of nature and a love of animals. Their courage and their philosophical attitudes are similar, and the steppes of Russia are much like the prairies of America.” When Selznick first heard Tiomkin’s “love theme”, he was visibly upset and lectured the composer, “You don’t understand. I want real f**king music!” Tiomkin fired back, “You f**k your way, I f**k my way. F**k you – I quit!” They patched the f**king quarrel, and Tiomkin’s music won out. Apart from the strong main theme, I think the ‘Duel‘ score is too bombastic: for prime Dimitri you can crank up the volume for High Noon, Giant, Gunfight At The O.K. Corral, Rio Bravo, The Alamo, The Unforgiven, Rawhide and The War Wagon.
**Among Selznick’s flamboyant publicity stunts was having airplanes buzz sporting events and drop thousands of war-surplus parachutes on the crowd, bearing info blurbs about the flick.
Shown in L.A. on Dec. 31, 1946 to qualify for the Academy Awards, it managed to cinch a nom for Jones and one for Gish as Supporting Actress (Anne Baxter, another Big Emotress, won the supporting trophy, for The Razors Edge). Taking the Best Actress gizmo that year was Olivia de Havilland for To Each His Own, but Jones absurd place on the ballot could/should have been taken by the un-recognized Ingrid Bergman (Notorious), Donna Reed (It’s A Wonderful Life) Irene Dunne (Anna and the King of Siam), or Myrna Loy (The Best Years Of Our Lives). Give the determined Jennifer credit, though, for looking haystack sexy, displaying admirable physical pluck and spitting out lines like “Trash! Trash! Trash!” For some reason there were only two nominees that year in the Cinematography category, and the marvelous work on this wacky extravaganza was left out.