Leftward, ho!

The very welcome return of Chris Schneider to Shadowplay's pages -- he's been looking at THREE FACES WEST, directed by Bernard "Mad" Vorhaus, and he's dug up some interesting stuff...

One thought that occurs while watching the good-looking, if not exactly compelling, THREE FACES WEST is “What does this Republic Pictures drama of dust-bowl farmers have in common with the Billy Wilder SUNSET BOULEVARD? The answer? Both of ‘em allude to the luxury car Isotta Fraschini.

Only in SUNSET BOULEVARD the car, which belongs to silent star Norma Desmond, is real and rentable, whereas in THREE FACES WEST it’s an impossibility, the stuff of foolish jokes. The daughter of a refugee Viennese doctor (Sigrid Gurie), who has been sent with her father (Charles Coburn) to bring medical aid to a North Dakota full of dust and influenza, thinks that when John Wayne says “jalopy” he’s referring to a make of Italian car. “First cousin to an Iscotta Fraschini,” chuckles Wayne — who’s a local leader. The word “Anschluss,” meaning Nazi Germany’s overtaking Austria, is soon to follow.

This is 1940, you see, the year GRAPES OF WRATH was released. The director and cinematographer are Bernard Vorhaus and John Alton, the pair who later made notable noirs THE AMAZING MR. X and BURY ME DEAD. Wayne, the male lead, has already appeared in his star-making STAGECOACH role, but the John Ford cavalry films are in his future.

The phrase “left-ish” — or, at least, “Popular Front” — comes to mind … and would even if first googling *didn’t* produce a Vorhaus bio in Spartacus Educational. Vorhaus had just made a Dr. Christian film, with script by Ring Lardner Jr. and Ian McClellan Hunter, concerned with medicine for the indigent. But it’s startling, in any case, to see Wayne in this context, the man who later would walk away from the family at the end of THE SEARCHERS involved in anything as communal as creating an Exodus-like convoy from the Dust Bowl to humid Oregon.

It seemed to indicate the writers’ left-wing cred that the radio show which connects Wayne with Coburn and Gurie is called We The People. But nah. This show actually existed, was broadcast on CBS from 1937 to 1949. Still, the name allows Wayne to say “We The People — left holding the bag!”

THREE FACES WEST is built around the equation of old-time pioneers with present-day (read early-‘40s) refugees. Pre-echoes of CASABLANCA occur when Gurie’s loyalties are torn between a fiancé in Vienna, who saved her life and turns out not to have died, and the more immediate Wayne. Not much suspense there. Not many of the Expressionist gestures I was hoping for, either, from director Vorhaus, although several gorgeous night shots with blowing wind and a single light-source indicate the hand of the d.p. who later shot T-MEN.

Coburn probably comes off best among the performers, although Gurie is affecting. Wayne has an unconvincing drunk scene, and another director might’ve advised him not to make a fist when talking about his desire to fight. Still, the camera loves Wayne’s *jeunesse doree*. As his recent costar Louise Brooks wrote, a shade backhandedly, “This is no actor but the hero of all mythology brought to life.” (Voice off: “No actor, you say?”)

There’s a chase, a wedding. Wayne gets handed an awkward line or two like “It was I who argued we stay here and fight.” A salient phrase of Victor Young’s score keeps sounding like the Warren & Dubin song “I’ll String Along With You” … although that’s probably because the words “Three Faces West” and “You may not be an angel” have the same rhythm. Not compelling, on the whole, but a film that’s historically notable and displays signs of virtuosity — says the writer before slamming the door and driving off in his imaginary Iscotta Fraschini.

*

The cast, as David Cairns might say, includes Ethan Edwards, Marya Volny, Benjamin Dingle, Pa Joad, Connolly the Barman, plus a cameo by Charles Foster Kane III.

5 Responses to “Leftward, ho!”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

    ” An Iscotta Fraschini. . . all handmade!”

  2. It’s hard to believe how many films John Wayne did. He obviously didn’t like to burn daylight. I’m gonna check this film out. Thanks for posting!

  3. Anne Richardson Says:

    David, Oregon is soggy, not humid. Our temperatures are cool, so we rarely experience humidity. Lots of rain, everything green, but mild temps. As an Oregonian, I first experienced humid weather visiting Chicago as a child. My reaction was “Who would put up with this?!”

  4. Blame Chris for mischaracterising your weather! All I know is Buster Keaton shot The General there.

  5. chris schneider Says:

    Sorry about that. I don’t know Oregon — as is all too evident!

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