|NORTH TO ALASKA (1960)
||[May. 19th, 2009|10:34 pm]
I spent five days with my parents a couple of weeks ago because my dad's birthday and Mother's Day were close together. During my time at home I unintentionally did a double feature of what I call "Big Stars in Little Westerns". I grew up knowing my dad didn't like John Wayne (and Bogart). Lately he's come around and been on a John Wayne kick. That's one reason he bought this obscure title from the $5 bin at Wal-Mart. The other reason is that the title song was a hit in Taiwan back in the day. My dad had never seen the movie though. |
I centered my interest on the fact that Henry Hathaway was the director. Hathaway's one of those solid, studio-stable directors who specialized in mid-budget genre pics. (John Sturges, director of Last Train from Gun HIll, the second half of this double feature, was another.) Hathaway was an exemplary action director; he shot my favorite part of How the West Was Won, a white-knuckle sequence involving a train that is more effective than nearly anything being made today.
The general gist of North to Alaska is that two buddies Sam (Wayne) and George (Stewart Granger) have struck it rich with their Alaskan gold mine. George has a fiance in Seattle but he needs to stay with the mine. He asks Sam to fetch her with the news that George is now a millionaire. When Sam finds her, she's already married and long forgotten about George. That night, Sam meets a beautiful French prostitute named Angel (the lovely Capucine) and decides to take her back to George instead. Meanwhile there's a sniveling grifter who keeps trying to weasal the mine away from Sam and George.
The film starts promising enough. We get the aforementioned theme song which segues almost immediately into a massive bar brawl. Here's where Hathaway shows his strengths as an action director: geography is clear, the characters are kept distinct, little gags here and there accompany the action, and the environment is used to full effect. Unfortunately, this is the only scene in the film where Hathaway seems to be paying attention. But even this scene is tonally off with the rest of the film. This scene is like the Keystone Kops or Looney Tunes, replete with a machine that bangs out carnival music, goofy sound effects and John Wayne mugging it cross-eyed. The rest of North to Alaska, meanwhile, is a mix of situational comedy and drama.
The script is unceasingly uneven, as if the writer had been drinking as hard as John Wayne's character while he was outlining. It really feels like they shot the first draft. More time and more ideas could have given each character a goal (only the grifter has one). The actual characterization seems to have been left entirely to the actors. There is an hour's worth of plot padded out to two hours so what we get are some painfully lame scenes. (Though I don't complain about Capucine's bath, during which I detected a nipple. Alert the Breen Office!) Once Angel arrives in Alaska, all that's needed are a few sequences of dramatic irony before things should get tied up neatly. Those ideal few scenes last about an hour. Then about ten minutes from the end, the grifter is reintroduced. In quick succession, the whole town breaks out in fistfights until our leads laugh away their problems and the grifter gets yanked off to jail. Huh? And those are all the problems before the more serious issue of male chauvinism can be thrown down.
North to Alaska is for Wayne, Capucine and Hathaway purists only. The first third is tolerable, promising even, but the wheels really fall off when Sam and Angel arrive in Alaska with a whole lot of luggage and no story.