The Kentuckian

THE KENTUCKIAN put Burt Lancaster in the director’s chair for the first time, co-producing along with starring as the title man-of-the-earth, a sort of Davy Crockett figure, bound for Texas with his young son and their hound dog. A.B. Guthrie Jr. wrote the screenplay from Felix Holt’s novel “The Gabriel Horn”.

1820. Widowed frontiersman ‘Elias Wakefield’ (Burt, 41) has lit out for the promised land of Texas, taking boy child ‘Little Eli’ along for a new start. Complications arise when they aid indentured servant ‘Hannah’ (Dianne Foster) and bring her along. Then they tarry into trouble by lingering at a community that includes domineering brother ‘Zack’ (John McIntire), steady and engaging schoolmarm ‘Susie Spann’ (Diana Lynn) and mean-spirited tavern owner ‘Stan Bodine’ (Walter Matthau, debut, 34). ‘Big Eli’ has to make up his mind where he wants to be and who he wants to be with.

Hitting a poor scholar isn’t going to cure your ignorance, my friend.”

Bernard Herrmann’s music score kicks it off with exuberant flavor and the expansive location shooting adds nice touches. Lancaster is earthy and sturdy, and Eli’s good-hearted attitude mixed with his naiveté make for some effective scenes. Matthau scores as the vile, whip-wielding nemesis, Foster is appealing and there are some unnerving moments from a pair of vengeful mountaineer brothers, played by Paul Wexler and Douglas Spencer. Dependable ham John Carradine enjoys himself as a medicine hawker.

Sometimes you can ruin what you love.”

On the down side, 13-year old child actor Donald MacDonald’s limited range stymies the key role of the boy, Lynn is too bland to generate interest as the teacher, and too many of the indoor sets and the overly-clean costuming clash with the outdoors and strived-for realism. The end result is interesting but hardly gripping. Budgeted at $1,200,000, the location shooting was accomplished in Kentucky around Owensboro, Levi Jackson State Park and Cumberland Falls State Park and in Indiana at the Lincoln Pioneer Village, a living-history museum near Rockport. After making a goodly amount of press noise about directing, Lancaster found it a much harder job than he’d cavalierly calculated, and he was stung enough by lackluster reviews that he would not try that job again for 19 years (and fouling out with The Midnight Man). *

Thomas Hart Benton was enlisted for the poster art. Grosses are cited as $7,400,000, settling at 39th place among the Americana-jammed lineup from 1955. With John Litel (as ‘Pleasant Tuesday Babson’), Una Merkle, Rhys Williams, Glenn Strange, Will Wright, Clem Bevans, James Griffith. 104 minutes.

* When child actor MacDonald grew up, he co-produced another slice of rowdy Americana, albeit decidedly less rustic—Caddyshack.


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