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Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon...eating their way through Italy

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon…eating their way through Italy

“THE TRIP TO ITALY”  My rating: B (Opening on Aug. 29 at the Glenwood Arts and Tivoli)

108 minutes | No MPAA rating

Fans of the 2010 buddy  film “The Trip” will feel right at home with the sequel. There are no surprises here.

Once again we have Brit comic actors Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan portraying slightly fictionalized versions of themselves on a cross-country trek, this time through glorious Italy.

Once again they spend much of their time eating scrumptious food and engaging in chatter that looks suspiciously like the conversational version of hand-to-hand combat. When these two egomaniacs square off, it’s a virtual comedy competition.

Early on, Coogan warns Brydon that he will tolerate no celebrity imitations this time around. This pronouncement may momentarily dampen our enthusiasm (watching the two trying to upstage each other by mimicking Michael Caine was one of the first film’s great wonders), but it soon becomes apparent that Coogan’s dictate has no teeth.

Because for the next 90 minutes we see the two of them (mostly Brydon this time) comically conversing in the voices of Caine, Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery, Richard Burton, Christian Bale, Anthony Hopkins, Al Pacino, Woody Allen, Hugh Grant, Dustin Hoffman, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal and Humphrey Bogart.

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Dane DeHaan and Aubrey Plaza in "Life After Beth"

Dane DeHaan and Aubrey Plaza in “Life After Beth”

“LIFE AFTER BETH”  My rating: C      (Opening Aug. 29 at the ***)

91 minutes | MPAA rating: R

How about a moratorium on zombie movies?  At least until someone comes up with a truly novel way of approaching what is quickly becoming a very worn-out genre?

In “Life After Beth,” small-town doofus Zach (Dane DeHaan) is mourning the death of his girlfriend Beth, who went out for hike one morning and was bitten by a poisonous snake.  As Jeff Baena’s film begins, Zach is dealing with her funeral.

Consumed by heartbreak, our hero starts hanging with Beth’s parents (John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon), sharing memories and bonding through mutual loss. His own family — Mom  (Cheryl Hines), Dad (Paul Reiser) and a trigger-happy security guard sibling (Matthew Gray Gubler) — would just as soon not have  his whiny self around.

One day Beth’s parents start acting strangely. They won’t come to the door. They close the shades.

A bit of sleuthing brings a shocking revelation. Beth (indie “it” girl Aubrey Plaza) has come back. She seems normal…albeit a bit distracted and flaky. But then she always was. How did this resurrection come to be?

Yup. Zombies.

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*** and ***

Margherita Buy and Stefano Accorsi

“A FIVE STAR LIFE” My rating: B (Opens Aug. 28 at the Leawood)

85 minutes | MPAA rating: No MPAA rating

Irene (Margherita Buy) has what many of us would consider a dream job.  She works for a Rome-based outfit that rates luxury hotels.

This means that on any given working day she boards a plane for some exotic destination and checks into a hotel where the rooms can cost thousands per night.

One installed, she pulls on white gloves and goes over the room looking for dust. She has a checklist in her head of important details: Does the desk clerk look her in the eye? Is the bellhop’s uniform properly pressed?

A stopwatch lets her precisely time how long it takes for room service to respond. And Irene also watches how other guests are treated…like the proletarian honeymooners who clearly have never before enjoyed such posh circumstances and who are mostly ignored by the snooty staff.

Irene eats in the hotels’ celebrated restaurants, enjoys the floor shows in their night spots, and subjects herself to spa treatments.

All this is done in secret.  Irene is a sort of spy, a “mystery guest” who ultimately will turn in a report that determines how many cherished stars an establishment can boast of in the travel books.

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Frank (Michael Fassbender), Domhnall Gleeson

Frank (Michael Fassbender), Domhnall Gleeson

“FRANK”  My rating: C+ (Now at the Screenland Armour)

95 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Frank” is such an interesting idea, I wish I liked it more.

Lenny Abrahamson’s bizarro comedy is about a wannabe musician who miraculously is invited to join an avant garde rock band.

This aggregation of misfits is lead by a mad genius named Frank who lives 24/7 with  his features covered by a huge papier mache head.

Except that there’s a whole lot more mad than genius in Frank, who is played by Brit actor Michael Fassbender (the “ X-Men” franchise, “12 Years a Slave”) exclusively through body language and his voice.  Not until very, very late in the game do we see what he looks like beneath the big noggin.

Our narrator/hero is Join (Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan), a mediocre pianist/songwriter who on a beach hear his home witnesses a fellow trying to drown himself in the sea.  This poor benighted lug is the keyboardist for the band led by the mysterious Frank.  And now the ensemble needs a piano player. Like right away.

Before long Jon finds himself whisked away to a remote recording studio in Ireland where, with Frank and other band members, he begins a long process of recording the group’s debut album.

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** and **, enjoying Iceland

Paul Eenhoorn and Earl Lynn Nelson — getting in touch with nature in Iceland

“LAND HO!” My rating: A- (Opening Aug. 22 at the Tivoli )
95 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Land Ho!” — one of the truest films ever made about male bonding — is a quirky buddy road trip flick that contains not one moment that isn’t completely believeable.

Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens’ minimalist effort is in the style of Kelly Reichardt (whose “Old Joy” would be the perfect other half of a double feature bill). It relies totally on character rather than cute situations.

It’s often funny, but also a bit sad.

It is going to frustrate those with short attention spans. Its cast members are unknowns and aside from a couple of old guys visiting tourist attractions in Iceland, not all that much happens. Or so it may appear…stick with it and discover a sneakily effective film about aging and friendship.

Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson), a recently retired surgeon, invites his former brother-in-law Colin (Paul Eenhoorn) for dinner at his home outside New Orleans. The two men, both pushing 70, used to be married to sisters. Both unions ended in divorce — Mitch’s many years ago and Colin’s so recently that the pain is still fresh.

They haven’t seen each other for ages, and Colin is taken aback when Mitch announces he’s treating them both to a tour of Iceland. (Why Iceland? Mitch has read that in addition to the mountains, geysers and volcanoes, the women there are beautiful.)

Talk about unlikely traveling companions…Mitch is a Southern-fried good ol’ boy — loud, crude and about as politically incorrect as you can get in matters of women and sex. Typical of his discourse is his praise of  a particularly tasty dish: “Like angels pissing on your tongue.” He describes his four sons as “one gay, one living in Berlin, one a convert to Judaism, and one regular.”

Colin is an Aussie, a former symphony musician (French horn) who now works in a bank. He’s childless, introspective, wry, and rather glum.

With a bombastic bud like Mitch, though, no one can stay glum for too long.

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Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly

Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly

“CALVARY” My rating: C+ (Opening  Aug. 15 at the Glenwood at Red Bridge, the AMC Studio 30, and the Cinemark Plaza)

100 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Not even a great-ish performance from Brendan Gleeson can disguise the confusion at the heart of “Calvary,” the new Irish movie from writer/director John Michael McDonagh.

As the film begins it seems to be setting up a Hitchcockian dilemma.  In the confessional, Father James (Gleeson) is threatened by a parishioner who as a child was repeatedly raped by his parish priest.

The perpetrator is long dead, but the victim still wants revenge. He announces (we hear his voice, but don’t see him) that in just a week he will kill Father James. The fact that James is a good priest and in no way connected to the long-ago outrage will only make for a more devastating “statement.”

James thinks he knows who this individual is.  And his superior informs him that when a priest’s life is threatened, the sanctity of the confessional is no longer an issue. James is free to go to the police.

But he doesn’t…which is only one of many improbabilities McDonagh pile atop one another.

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alive-inside“ALIVE INSIDE” My rating: A (Opening Aug. 15 at the Tivoli)

78 minutes | No MPAA rating 

Movies don’t change lives.

Religion can change lives. Falling in love can, and so can becoming a parent. Tragedy, alas, is hugely effective at creating change, albeit painfully.

But movies? Not really.

Except nobody seems to have told this to the makers of “Alive Inside,” a devastating, incredibly inspiring documentary about the power of music.

Michael Rossato-Bennett‘s documentary follows the efforts of Dan Cohen, a volunteer whose personal mission in life is to bring music to Alzheimer’s patients.

He does it with an iPod, a pair of headphones and playlists specially built to reflect the music these individuals enjoyed in their primes.

“Music connects people with who they have been, who they are and their lives,” Cohen says. “Because what happens when you get old is all the things you’re familiar with, your identity, are all just being peeled away.”

Early in the film Cohen works his magic on a 94-year-old man who has been more or less vegetative for years. With the music playing, the man comes alive. He sings along, he claps his hands and waves. And, astoundingly, he begins holding a conversation with Cohen. It’s the first time he’s really talked to another human being in ages.

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Om Puri and Helen Mirren

Om Puri and Helen Mirren

“THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY” My rating: B  (Opening wide on Aug. 8)

122 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Moviegoers are forgiven for approaching “The Hundred-Foot Journey” with foreboding. From the ads one might reasonably conclude that this is yet another middlebrow movie tailor-made to soothe (but never challenge) the sensibilities of the art house blue-hair brigade.

Well, Lasse Hallstrom’s film is definitely middlebrow, and it is certainly soothing — but it’s also very well acted and emotionally potent. It  introduces two newcomers (quite possibly the handsomest couple I’ve seen on screen in ages) who will, if there is any justice, become overnight stars. And they are perfectly complemented by two cinema veterans at the top of their game.

Plus, “The Hundred-Foot Journey” is, God help me, life-affirming, albeit without feeling manipulative. (I don’t mind when a movie makes me cry…only when it twists my arm to achieve that effect.)

The widower  Kadam (Om Puri) has fled political upheaval in his native India and with his five children has opened a restaurant outside London. But the weather sucks and now they are driving around Europe, trying to find a place to settle down. (Granted, this doesn’t sound like a terribly smart business plan, but since Kadam still converses regularly with his dead wife, you’ve got to assume cosmic forces are in play.)

The family’s van breaks down in a postcard-perfect French burg (it’s got a river, rolling hills and a view of the mountains) and Kadam gloms onto an abandoned building that he believes could become the home for his new Indian restaurant.

Problem is, it sits just across the road (100 feet away, to be precise) from a Michelin-starred French restaurant operated for decades by the widow Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). Mallory is a shrewish lady who lives and breathes haute cuisine, and she is appalled by the Kadam family’s blaring Bollywood music, the garish colors of their restaurant’s decor, and the heavily-spiced odors that drift across the road and into her stuffy establishment. (“If your food is anything like your music, I suggest you tone it down.”)

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Andrew

Andrew

“RICH HILL” My rating: A- (Opening Aug. 8 at the Screenland Crown Center)

91 minutes | No MPAA rating

Get out your hanky.  After watching “Rich Hill” you’ll need it.

This Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary from cousins Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo — centering on three adolescent boys coming of age in Rich Hill, MO (southeast of Kanas City in Bates County) — is a heartfelt and sobering study of poverty in America.

It’s about the sort of people the rest of the world looks upon with amusement and disdain, something that is acknowledged in the opening minute by 14-year-old Andrew, who declares “We’re not trash. We’re good people.”

And Andrew really is good people, a young man overflowing with hope and benign intentions despite a family situation — a mother this close to being institutionalized and a handyman father whose endless (and apparently hopeless) quest for employment means moving his clan several times every year — that would leave a lesser individual angry and impotent.

Instead Andrew is smart, well-spoken, and maintains a charitable disposition that is little short of miraculous. You feel that he might have a real chance at making something of himself.

The same cannot be said of the film’s other two subjects.

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Chadwick Boseman as James Brown

Chadwick Boseman as James Brown

“GET ON UP”  My rating: C+ (Opening wide on August 1)

138 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Actor Chadwick Boseman doesn’t look much like James Brown.

They’re both African Americans, yeah, but that’s about as far as the resemblance goes.

But Boseman, who a couple of years back wowed us with his performance as baseball great Jackie Robinson in “42,” pulls off an impressive transformation in “Get On Up.”

He gets some help from a closet full of wigs and funky period clothing, but mostly he acts his way into Brown’s shoes, capturing the movements, the physical attitude, the facial expressions of the late great Godfather of Soul. Viewed from the right angle, illuminated with dramatic stage lighting, Boseman convinces us that he’s the real deal.

Too bad the film of which he is the centerpiece can’t decide what deal it’s talking about.

James Brown was a musical genius, an exacting boss, a wandering and frequently violent husband. He was a bundle of contradictions — compelling and caustic, inspiring and irritating — and the makers of “Get On Up” clearly don’t know what to make of him.

Should they idolize him? Should they knock him off his pedestal?

Perhaps screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth were limited by the dictates of Brown’s estate and heirs.  Or perhaps they simply were unable to find a coherent take on a guy whose rags-to-riches life is the stuff of American legend and whose personal failings were damn near Sophoclean.

They try to mask their wishywashy approach by employing a time-bending narrative that is forever zigging and zagging between Brown’s impoverished (emotionally and financially) childhood and his adult triumphs and misadventures. But without a clear point of view running throughout the picture, “Get On Up” runs out of dramatic steam long before the final credits.

Thank heavens for that superb James Brown songbook, which allows Boseman to perform such killer hits as “It’s a Man’s World,” “Please Please Please,” “Cold Sweat” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”  I can’t tell if Boseman is doing his own singing here or lip-syncing to original Brown tracks, but the results are mesmerizing. At the very least you’ll come away from the film marveling at Brown’s musical contributions and continuing influence.

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Ellar Coltrane...growing up before our eyes

Ellar Coltrane…growing up before our eyes

“BOYHOOD”  My rating: A (Opening Aug. 1 at the Tivoli, Rio, Glenwood Arts and AMC Town Center)

165 minutes | MPAA rating: R

True originality is rare in the cinema, perhaps the most self-referential and cannibalistic of all the art forms.

But with “Boyhood” Texas auteur Richard Linklater has given us something so fresh and new it boggles the mind.

The gimmick is that Linklater filmed the picture over 12 years, each year shooting a few new scenes featuring the same actors.

His central character, Mason,  is portrayed from age 6 to 18 by Ellar Coltrane, who is as natural in his scenes as a college freshman as he was as a first grader when the movie began almost three hours earlier.

It isn’t just Mason who grows up before our eyes.  Everyone in the cast undergoes the transformation dictated by the passage of time — Lorelei Linklater (the filmmaker’s daughter), who plays Mason’s sassy older sister Samantha, and Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, who portray their divorced parents. (Hawke, of course, is with Julie Delpy the star of Linklater’s “Before…” series, which to date has produced three movies examining a romantic relationship over two decades.)

Early in this review I called “Boyhood’s” setup a gimmick. Well, if this is a gimmick it is a singularly profound gimmick, one that packs an overwhelming emotional punch. By using the same actors at various stages in their lives Linklater is able to meld the specific with the universal in a way I’ve never before experienced in a fiction film.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman in "A Most Wanted Man"

Philip Seymour Hoffman in “A Most Wanted Man”

“A MOST WANTED MAN”  My rating: B (Now showing)

121 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Even without the knowledge that it features one of  the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last filmed performances, “A Most Wanted Man” would be a dark, melancholy affair.

After all, Anton Corbijn’s film is based on a John le Carre espionage procedural. As such, it unfolds in a world of spook/bureaucrats where good and evil are more a matter of opportunity than absolutism, a world where the unsuspecting, the innocent, and the idealistic pretty much get eaten alive.

In Hamburg, Germany, a shaggy, soaking wet man pulls himself from the harbor and onto dry land. This scarecrowish figure is Issa Karpov (Grigorly Dobrygin), a Chechnian Muslim suspected by Western intelligence services of being a dangerous jihadist. With haunted eyes staring out of a grey hoodie, Issa seems more like a sorry, half-mad monk than a an actual threat.

But his arrival sets off a manhunt in the world of spies. Gunther Bachmann (Hoffman) runs a super-secret anti-terrorism unit of the German government. Unlike most of his rivals in the intelligence community, Gunther views the fugitive Issa not as a threat but as an opportunity.  Like a chess player whose strategy is always several moves ahead of the actual game, Gunther believes he can use Issa to trap a much juicier target, a fundraiser for Muslim charities (Homayoun Ershadi) who may be siphoning off money to buy rocket launchers rather than medical supplies.

There’s no point in trying to describe the knotty machinations that follow.  Let’s just say that they involve a lawyer for a human rights group (Rachel McAdams) who becomes Issa’s protector,  a banker (Willem Dafoe) whose firm maintains an account set up decades earlier by Issa’s father, and a CIA operative (Robin Wright) who uses her clout to back Gunther’s long game despite pressure from other spooks who want to immediately scoop up Issa and throw him into the shadowy underworld of terrorist detention.

This isn’t your typical spy movie.  No guns are fired. No chases down dark, wet alleys.

Instead we get a slowly-paced game of wits that gradually builds to a crushing conclusion.

 

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** and Jon Favreau in  "Chef"

Emjay Anthony and Jon Favreau in “Chef”

“CHEF” My rating: B (Opening wide on May 22)

115 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The title character of “Chef” works in a hugely lucrative but artistically stifling high-end L.A. restaurant. He has a meltdown and goes off looking to regain his muse of cooking.

Interestingly enough, “Chef “ was written, directed by, and stars Jon Favreau, who first burst onto the scene as an indie auteur (“Swingers,” “Made”) before finding mucho money and Tinseltown clout cranking out superhero movies for the Marvel folk (“Iron Man”).

“Chef” can be seen as Favreau’s return to down-home cooking/filmmaking. Despite its impressively deep cast, it’s a relatively simple, modestly budgeted affair, less a banquet than a delicate palate cleanser.

Nothing earthshaking happens here. No deep emotions are plumbed or existential dilemmas explored.

But if  the film is superficial, it is often slyly funny, has a real handle on the restaurant biz and its denizens, genuinely likes its characters, and tries to look on the sunny side. In short,  a pleasant couple of hours at the movies.

Carl Casper (Favreau) is top chef at one of Hollywood’s most in-demand eateries. But he’s hit a creative dead end. The joint’s owner (Dustin Hoffman) doesn’t want to tinker with success and consistently nixes Carl’s attempts at an edgier menu.

When a powerful food blogger (Oliver Platt) pans the place as old hat and unimaginative, Carl has a very public meltdown that is recorded by dozens of customers, making him an Internet sensation.  But while being the raving chef raises Carl’s profile, it gets him fired and makes him unemployable.

He’s got no choice but to start over. Continue Reading »

Ralph Fiennes in Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel"

Ralph Fiennes in Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL”  My rating: B (Opens wide on March 21)

100 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a whopper of a shaggy dog story – or more accurately, it’s a series of shaggy dog stories that fit neatly inside one another like one of those painted Russian dolls.

The film’s yarn-within-a-yarn structure and a delightfully nutty perf from leading man Ralph Fiennes are the main attractions here. I had hoped that “Grand Budapest…” would scale the same emotional heights as Anderson’s last effort, the captivating “Moonrise Kingdom.”

It doesn’t. But there’s still plenty to relish here.

Describing the film requires a flow chart. But here goes:

In the present in a former Eastern Bloc country, a young woman visits the grave of a dead author and begins reading his book The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Suddenly we’re face to face with the writer (Tom Wilkinson), who is sitting at the desk in his study. After a few introductory comments and a brusque cuffing of a small boy who is proving a distraction, the author begins telling us the plot of his novel.

Now we’re in the 1990s in the formerly sumptuous but now dog-eared Grand Budapest hotel in the Eastern European alps. Staying there is a Young Writer (Jude Law) who befriends the mysterious Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). An aged empresario who owns several of Europe’s most luxurious hotels, Moustafa keeps the Grand Budapest running for nostalgic reasons.

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 Griffin Dunne, Stuart Margolin

Griffin Dunne, Stuart Margolin

“THE DISCOVERERS” My rating: B- (Opening Aug. 22 at Cinetopia)

104 minutes | No MPAA rating

In “The Discoverers” a dysfunctional modern family find themselves frustrated yet drawn together when they spend their vacation as historical re-enactors.

Justin Schwarz’s indy effort boasts of a strong cast, some clever ideas, a bit of heart and a few whopping improbabilities. But it’s a pleasant little ride.

Make that a pleasant little walk.  Because depressed academician and failed novelist Lewis Birch (Griffin Dunne) and his two sullen offspring (Madeleine Martin, Devon Greye) find themselves suckered into participating in a cross-country trek with a bunch of folk who annually relive the Lewis and Clark expedition.

The Birch clan get involved because of Lewis’ father (Stuart Margolin), a crusty old bugger with a loaded flintlock and a coonskin cap who wants more than anything to complete one last hike before he dies.

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John Wayne makes one of the movies' great entrances in "Stagecoach."

John Wayne makes one of the movies’ great entrances in “Stagecoach.”

 

“Stagecoach” screens at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, August 23, 2014 in the Durwood Film Vault of the Kansas City Central Library, 14W. 10th St.  Admission is free. It’s part of the year-long film series Hollywood’s Greatest Year, featuring movies released in 1939.

 

From the moment it hit the nation’s movie screens in March of 1939, John Ford’s “Stagecoach” was declared a masterpiece.

Not just a pretty good Western, but a masterpiece. Never before had an “oater” earned that sort of praise.

Not only did “Stagecoach” redefine the possibilities of an overworked and underappreciated genre, but it made a first-class star of John Wayne,  who had been kicking around for nearly a decade in B-movie purgatory.

Today, 75 years later, “Stagecoach” remains on virtually every list of the best Westerns ever made.

Ironically, Ford almost didn’t get it made at all.

Though he had filmed dozens of silent Westerns in the 1920s, Ford was pretty much out of the cowboy business by 1939.  Throughout the ‘30s he had made comedies, adventures, costume dramas – just about every sort of motion picture. But Ford was considered a prestige director and Westerns were widely considered to be matinee fodder:  cheap, cliché-riddled, horse-heavy melodramas aimed at little boys and men who still thought like little boys.

The big studios hardly ever made Westerns any more, leaving them to a handful of low-budget production companies.  Most Westerns didn’t even get reviewed by the newspapers.

But Ford loved Westerns. He saw in the genre’s clichés possibilities for commenting on what would become his favorite cinematic theme: What it means to be an American.

Ford had purchased the screen rights to the short story “Stage to Lordsburg,” which appeared in Collier’s magazine. It was about a diverse group of travelers  thrown together by circumstance for a dangerous trip through Apache territory. They come from various professions and castes, and represent a microcosm of the larger society.

Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols went to work expanding the tale, adding characters and situations. But the studios weren’t interested. It was only a Western, after all.

Finally producer David O. Selznick (who at the time was hard at work on “Gone With the Wind”) signed on. But when he demanded that Ford cast big stars in the main roles – Selznick wanted Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich —  Ford backed out of the deal.

Because the director already had a cast in mind. For the role of Dallas, a prostitute who has been run out of town, he envisioned a young actress named Claire Trevor.  And for the role of Ringo, a young outlaw who has broken out of prison to seek revenge on his father’s killers, Ford wanted John Wayne.

Nearly a decade earlier Wayne, then a UCLA grad known as Marion Michael Morrison,   had worked for Ford as a prop boy. Now and then he was cast as an extra in a Ford film.

Leaving the Ford company, Wayne began getting roles  in Westerns. But “The Big Trail,” an epic wide-screen production about a wagon train that was supposed to be his big breakthrough, flopped. For several years Wayne’s career had been treading water in low-budget studios like Monogram and Republic.

Ford had kept an eye on his former protégé, studying the development of Wayne’s screen persona through a series of mediocre vehicles and awaiting a role that would show the struggling actor in the best possible light. Ringo was the perfect match.

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