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LAUGHABLE YET CURIOUSLY ENJOYABLE...
on March 23, 2003
This 1946 western boasts spectacular, technicolor cinematography and a script that is sometimes laughable. Directed by Hollywood notable, King Vidor, one wonders whether he was under pressure by the producer, David O. Selznick, and was more of a puppet rather than a director. That can be the only explanation for this directorial faux pas. It is so over the top in its excesses that in the first five minutes one sees some wild, almost hysterical dancing, the cuckolding of a husband, and two murders arising out of that nasty domestic situation.
The storyline is simple. A Spanish Grandee, Scott Chavez (Herbert Marshall), married the wrong woman, a wild and passionate Indian, instead of his true love, Laura Belle. Together they have a child whom they named Pearl. Known as a half breed, Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones), wants to be a lady, a "good girl". Given who her mother was, however, no one wants to give her a chance to prove herself. When her father knows he is to die, he packs her off to his first love, Laura Belle (Lillian Gish), who lives in Texas and is married to Senator McCanles (Lionel Barrymore). They have two sons, Jesse (Joseph Cotten) and Lewt (Gregory Peck). Jesse is the good son and his mother's favorite, while Lewt is a spoiled rake and his father's favorite.
When Pearl arrives at the McCanles ranch, Lillian greets her warmly, as does Jesse. Senator McCanles, her overbearing husband, however, treats Pearl to some racist, politically incorrect invective, while Lewt eyes her lasciviously. Needless to say, a love triangle of sorts develops. Ultimately, both sons want her, but they both can't have her. Jesse treats Pearl like a lady, while Lewt treats her like a wanton. When a breach with his father arises, Jesse leaves the ranch, leaving Pearl to the mercy of Lewt who will stop at nothing, not even murder, to ensure his claim over Pearl. In the end, Lewt appears to be the one to get Pearl, but what he gets may be more than that for which bargained. Moreover, Pearl may also be prone to self-sacrifice.
Herbert Marshall, as the Spanish Grandee with regrets, gives an effective performance, although he is somewhat miscast. Lillian Gish gives an excellent portrayal of the put upon Laura Belle, though her death scene is so melodramatic that it is hard to keep a straight face. Lionel Barrymore is also excellent, though a little over the top in his performance. I have to say, I loved Gregory Peck as the bad guy. He gives a truly terrific performance. The viewer gets a sense that Peck really seemed to be enjoying himself. Joseph Cotten oozes integrity in the role of the saintly Jesse. Butterfly McQueen, as Vashti the maid, is, well, Butterfly McQueen, with her distinctive, high pitched voice, holding sway over the viewer. Charles Bickford, as the ranch straw boss, Sam Pierce, gives a restrained and moving performance as the man who truly loves and wants to marry Pearl, a desire that Lewt will do everything to thwart.
Jennifer Jones, quite frankly, is utterly laughable as Pearl. If she had not been the producer's main squeeze at the time, I doubt that she would ever have been cast for the part of Pearl. So over the top is her performance, so filled with pouty grimaces, histrionics, and sultry poses, that her portrayal of Pearl rises to the level of high camp. The scene where she grabs Lewt's leg in a histrionic fit, declaring her undying love as he walks away, dragging her across the floor, is a bit much. I suspect that the director's handling of Ms. Jones' portrayal of Pearl was the director's way of getting back at the producer. If so, the director succeeded in giving it to the producer in spades.
Notwithstanding this, the film is still a moderately enjoyable western. For those who object to its political incorrectness, remember to keep in mind the social context out of which it arose. The times, they are a changing.