THE BIG TREES fell into 1952 as a liberating affair for star Kirk Douglas, who disliked the project but did it for free to get out of his contract with Warner Brothers. He plays one of his many early career heels, with typical energy (and sans over-emoting) but as written his greedy timber baron is such a schmuck, throughout and to everyone, that his ultimate turnabout to redemption isn’t at all convincing; too late to care about and too little to raise a B-picture to more than C-level. A pair of co-stars fare better by the material, and all are bested by the scenery. *
“You stye on the eye of a flea on a thigh of a nit on the neck of a gnat!”
1900. After pillaging Wisconsin, scruples-chopping lumberman ‘Jim Fallon’ (Douglas) sets his money-hungry ambitions on the giant trees of California and brings his lusty crew of axe ‘n saw boys to slay the oldest living things on Earth. Standing in his way are some tree-abiding Quakers, ornery rival loggers, a lawyer with relative principle, two gals of contrasting temperament and assorted pals who can’t take his smiling, charmless b.s. any more.
Directed by Felix E. Feist, written by John Twist and James R. Webb, the mostly stale tale is ‘purty durn’ similar to 1938’s Valley Of The Giants, even borrowing some of the earlier flick’s Technicolor footage. The location shooting in northern California’s Humboldt County, around Williams Grove and Orick, at least provides visual pleasure through the mighty Redwoods. As the story’s pastor remarks “The giant sequoias are more than trees, friend. They are the everlasting sign of our Creator’s work… 4000 years old… as old as the Book and the Faith.” **
The script wants to have it both ways with Douglas’ character: we’re ‘told’ (via some meaningful reaction shots) that Fallon has ‘decency’ underneath but since he screws over everyone on the way to fessing for it we can’t care a twig about him, or the plot kindling him. Irony had a handmaiden on the job: as the thrust of The Big Trees is “save ’em”, the movie couldn’t have been made without the cooperation of a couple of the local logging outfits. Lotsa fellers get socked, there’s a snazzy saloon song & dance number, numerous flavorful shots of olden days tree-falling and some crazy-dangerous stunt work on a runaway train (some of that culled from the 1938 movie).
Adding some human pep is the always amusing Edgar Buchanan as a coot named ‘Yukon’. Best is a chance to see Patrice Wymore, 25, playing the sassy saloon dame who tags along with Kirk and turns eventually tables. She only appeared in a dozen movies, and is mainly recalled for being the third wife of Errol Flynn, who fell for her when they made 1950’s nifty western Rocky Mountain. Watching her in this forgotten entry, it’s easy to see why Errol was enchanted: she steals every scene she’s in, her wised-up delivery and casual sex appeal in the same disarming/enticing bracket as Ann Sheridan. Warner’s misused her in throwaway parts. Flynn’s win, our loss.
Grossing $2,400,000, 141st in ’52, running 89 minutes, with Eve Miller (dull Quaker lady who somehow sees something in Kirk’s jerk), John Archer (disgruntled), Roy Roberts (sturdy), Alan Hale Jr. (hale & hardy), Charles Meredith (preachin’), Harry Cording (seething), Ellen Corby (squeaking) and Lilian Bond (34, former vamp of the 1930s from The Old Dark House and The Westerner, now turned bit player to new dish Wymore).
* Douglas fared much better that year, jutting chin as another driven type in an equally rough & tumble trade—Hollywood and film-making—on The Bad And The Beautiful, and as a much nicer fella in a much better, earlier frontier epic, The Big Sky.
** Anyone who’s beheld the majestic trees in Redwoods or Sequoia Natl. Parks, is stunned humble by their might, beauty and natural dignity, their individual and collective grandeur. Or ought to be—queue Ronald Reagan’s infamous quip “A tree’s a tree. How many more do you need to look at?” Nothing like having a mean dunce in the top job. How many more frauds like you do we have to look at?
Back on Earth, other olden days lumber sagas to log or evade include Come And Get It and Guns Of The Timberland. For a good one set in modern times, buck Sometimes A Great Notion. From the silent days on there have been more than three dozen (mostly minor) movies centered around the prideful, dangerous lumberjacking trade. The woods were big (and certainly more extensive) in 1952, which also put John Payne in The Blazing Forest and Richard Widmark in Red Skies Of Montana.