|Glenn Ford and Felicia Farr against the beauty of the West in Jubal (1956).|
Jubal (1956-Delmer Daves) is being shown on Encore Westerns this month. I believe that the vivid print they are airing may be the restored version that was shown at the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2010, though film purists with a technical streak may find the 35mm print somewhat dissatisfying, for reasons that are explained here and because it is being shown in a pan-and-scan mode.
Filmed in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, it appears to be magnificent-looking to this movie peasant, leading me to almost smell the mountain air, the wild strawberries, cow patties, and meadow flowers that are captured in every wide-screen vista as photographed by Charles Lawton, Jr., who also worked on the two other Glenn Ford Westerns made with director Delmer Daves, 3:10 to Yuma (1957) and Cowboy (1958). Ford, who was reaching the apogee of his popularity in the '50s, told an interviewer near the end of life:
"Del was a very fine director. I think the three films we did together hold up well, even today. You know, I can't tell you why we had good chemistry. He was always prepared and he knew what he wanted to achieve with a film. I owe Del a lot of credit in my goal to portray a real cowboy, not an actor pretending to be a cowboy. He saw potential in me and I hope I didn't disappoint him."
|Above: On the set of Jubal, Glenn Ford playing a tune as Rod Steiger, with his arm around Delmer Daves (in plaid cap), looks on with many of the rest of the company. |
Delmer Daves, who lived among the Hopi and Navajo tribes as a young man, brought his considerable storytelling skills to some very fine, thoughtful Westerns as a result, among them Broken Arrow (1950) and The Hanging Tree (1959). As a big fan of all Daves' movies (even the teen "classics" of the '60s), I was eager to see this movie. I was drawn in by the storyline, as well as the way that Ford underplayed his quiet character, allowing the more florid characters around him to take center stage most of the time, but commanding attention by his stillness. As the story played out, the leading man also eventually displayed his adroitness with action sequences requiring him to draw a gun, and show his spine. Interestingly, there may have been something to Ford's feeling about Daves' ability to draw out his best acting.
I must admit that in some films, I have sometimes found Glenn Ford to veer between annoyingly boyish puppy-dog expressions (A Stolen Life, The Mating of Millie) and an occasionally impenetrable stolidness (parts of Gilda and Trial). In between some of those roles, when a really good director got his mitts on Ford, like John Cromwell in So Ends Our Night (1941), Joseph H. Lewis in The Undercover Man (1949), Fritz Lang in The Big Heat (1953) and more, the guy delivered some very good performances. I suspect that by the time Glenn Ford made these three Westerns with Delmer Daves the stars were aligned nicely, with the actor seasoned enough to give his best and Daves reaching the height of his powers as a filmmaker and a director who could elicit some of the best performances from his actors. There was also an element of just plain luck too.
While most reviewers I've read seem to agree that the Jubal story is rooted in Othello, it seems to feature two Desdemonas, one seemingly pure and one apparently evil. I was also intrigued by the historical and spiritual references in the movie, particularly in the name of the central character, a drifter named Jubal Troop. That brings to mind the descendent of Cain mentioned in The Old Testament's Genesis as the somewhat "redeemed" inventor of musical instruments: "And his brother's name was Jubal: he was the father of all such as handle the harp and pipe. " Being an offspring of Cain is perhaps meant to reflect the rootless and forsaken nature of Ford's character, who begins the film as a "lost lamb" found in the wilderness and suspected of "being one of those lousy sheep herders." The name Jubal but might also have been an echo of the recent Civil War and some ties to the "Lost Cause" nature of that period, as a nod to the daring but ultimately defeated Confederate General Jubal Early. In the film, Ford is rescued by Shep Horgan, a ranch owner who is a good-hearted and generous man, (if not very bright) well-played by Ernest Borgnine.
|Above: Valerie French tries to escape her "10,000 acres of loneliness" with Glenn Ford for a few moments in Jubal|
In contrast, Felicia Farr, the daughter of a band of migrating Christians, is defined by her youth and the strong if slightly rock-ribbed spiritual beliefs of her father (played by veteran character actor Basil Ruysdael with a wary caution). Farr, who along with French was making her debut in this film, was lovely, and her simple goodness and virginal appeal to the Glenn Ford character was completely understandable. BTW, in Peter Ford's biography of his father, Glenn Ford: A Life, "Glenn's fondest memories of Jubal had to do with the young actress who played his love interest. 'Felicia was just lovely,' he recalled. 'Very pretty and smart. I was very fond of her. There was something between us, but let's just leave it at that. She married a great guy [Jack Lemmon], and I know they were very happy together." Farr would go on to appear in Daves' The Last Wagon (1956) and 3:10 to Yuma (1957), until she married Lemmon while he was appearing with Glenn Ford in another Delmer Daves film, Cowboy (1958). After her marriage, the actress, seen below with Ford, only appeared in movies occasionally.
On reflection, some of the most interesting scenes in the film feature the interaction between the bullying Rod Steiger and Ford's taciturn drifter. Steiger's "Pinky" (would his character have been a happier guy if he could have shaken that nickname?) is a spoiler, cast aside by Valerie French, especially after she spies the new arrival, Jubal. Pinky lives to curdle every man's relationship with the ranch owner's unfaithful wife and with one another. I suspect that Rod really needed someone like Elia Kazan to rein him in, though his power in certain scenes is very effective, though other moments are too over-the-top. Maybe he was cast in this role due to his dangerously apt work as Judd in the recent film version of Oklahoma (1955). The contrast being the acting styles of the minimalist Ford and the brooding Steiger appears to have reflected their off-screen relations. Ford described Rod Steiger as "a fine actor but a real strange fellow. When I was a young actor I followed Spencer Tracy's advice, 'Learn your lines, hit your mark, don't bump into the props, and do the scene.' That's all a good actor needs to know in my opinion. 'Doing nothing well' is my definition of a good actor. One of the great misconceptions about this business is that you get in front of a camera and 'act.' That's the very thing an actor should not do. Be yourself--people need to identify with you. If they're not able to, you're in trouble."
With due respect to Ford, the ability of audiences to identify with a character on screen extended beyond the leading man, especially as morally complex roles began to be more realistic than traditional studio era archetypes in the '50s--even when it made audience members reflect on something that made them uncomfortable in their own nature. Steiger was among those who "dared to be bad" in extending this frontier of characterization.
|Above: Rod Steiger as the vicious "Pinky" in Jubal (1956).|
Looking back on the experience years later, Glenn Ford concluded that "Rod...well, in kindness I think I should say he did a great job with his role. However, the "method" got a little too much for some of us, especially the wranglers. As a director, Del probably was in tune with Rod. Rod beat me at poker [off-screen]. I think Jack [Elam] and Rod had some kind of system going that they pulled on us, because I seldom lost at cards!...Look, Rod won an Academy Award, didn't he? And so did Ernie, so whatever Rod was doing in his role for Jubal probably worked for him. He was intense, I'll tell you that." Steiger was also very good at times, especially in his final scene opposite Valerie French, when he convincingly seethed with rage and pain. As an actor in only his sixth film, RS was still relatively new to films, which also may have contributed to his uneven performance illuminated with flashes of brilliance.
Fortunately, the film was graced by several great character actors, including Jack Elam, lantern-jawed Jack Dierkes, a very young Charles Bronson, and Noah Beery, Jr., as an endearing cowpoke who steals most scenes with just his shy grin...be still, my foolish heart. My only quibble about these stalwarts is that they are not given enough screen time, which is taken up by the leads and that gorgeous scenery.
This film is occasionally on cable, TCM, and is available on DVD.
Glenn Ford: A Life (Univ of Wisconsin Press, 2011) by Peter Ford, The Westerners: Interviews with Actors, Directors, Writers and Producers (McFarland, 2009) by C. Courtney Joyner, and the great Western resource, 50 Westerns From the 50s.