North to Alaska (Blu-ray Review)6 Jan, 2014 By: Mike Clark
Stars John Wayne, Stewart Granger, Ernie Kovacs, Fabian, Capucine.
A transitional movie in John Wayne’s career that opened a mere week or two after The Alamo to much better reviews in 1960, this Henry Hathaway Western farce is broad even by Donovan’s Reef standards, though you probably haven’t lived until you’ve seen Ernie Kovacs (the heavy of the piece) completely covered in mud after a free-for-all. Alaska’s premiere also occurred the same week that singer Johnny Horton, who sings the hit title tune over the opening credits, died in a car crash — the same day that also saw the passing of silent comedy director Mack Sennett and actor Ward Bond, who was one of Wayne’s closest friends. That’s a lot of activity in a compressed period, and we haven’t even gotten to Fabian.
One of the great secrets in screen history is that the Dick Clark 1950s’ most manufactured teen idol is pretty funny here as co-star Stewart Granger’s kid brother, though Fabian’s big accordion-backed number here (“If You Knew”) is as miserable as ever and saved only by the fact that the Blu-ray print seems to have its bottom frame-line set lower than usual to expose a nipple during Capucine’s concurrent bathtub scene. Without trying to get too pervy about it, it at least looks like a nipple, and, indeed, Fox had let one slip before amid Susan Hayward’s during a production number in With a Song in My Heart, eight years earlier. Is this the European cut or something? (Actually, a little Googling indicates this slip-up has been noted on certain but not all earlier prints as well, though it had passed me by in previous viewings.)
In any event, Alaska is, uh, freely adapted from a play called Birthday Gift by Ladislas Fodor, which must make this the only John Wayne movie (or for that matter, Fabian movie) to have been inspired by a guy named Ladislas. As the great Horton song explains, Wayne’s “Big Sam” is prospecting gold with partner George (Granger) and brother Billy (Fabian), at least when George isn’t pining for a French babe he met in Seattle. Sent from Alaska to pick her up, Wayne/Sam discovers that she’s married — a rude turn of events that inspires him to bring back a substitute he discovers in a brothel (Capucine in her second English-language feature after the Franz Liszt biopic Song Without End, which must have made for a helluva workday transition).
It further turns out that the actress’s “Angel” character has some history with four-flusher Kovacs, who has already drawn Wayne’s ire by trying to sell him a glass diamond ring — a discovery that leads to one of those patented Duke punch-outs of the day’s most certified comic genius, one of the more singular screen moments of the Eisenhower-into-Kennedy era. The guy she has to fight off most of all, though, is Fabian — who’s feeling his frisky oats around the time the Wayne-Granger shack’s well-stocked booze arsenal hits his stomach.
Three of Wayne’s definitive performances in the decade after World War II came in movies where he was playing characters older than he was in real life: Red River, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The High and the Mighty (grizzled as he looks in The Searchers, he’s probably fairly close to the character in terms of chronology). But perhaps because producing, directing and starring in The Alamo took so much out of him, the actor aged fairly fast starting in the mid-1950s, and only a few years after Alaska, he got out of the screen romancing altogether and became a kind of a razzer of younger co-stars (something he’d started with Jeffrey Hunter in The Searchers and would pull off extremely well opposite Stuart Whitman in 1961’s The Comancheros). No fool commercially, Wayne also started loading up his films with pop singers: first Ricky Nelson, then Frankie Avalon and then Fabian — followed later by Glen Campbell and Bobby Vinton. Of these, the two primary razzing targets were Campbell and Fabian.
A deserving recipient here for someone’s “good sport” award, Capucine seems to have better comic rapport with Granger and Fabian than with Wayne, which may be why her performance seems to improve as the movie progresses. It’s hard to watch the actress’ ’60s performances (especially the comic ones) without thinking of how (much later) she leapt to her death out of an eighth-floor apartment in Lausanne — but Alaska captures her when, despite her super costuming here, she seemed as willing as anyone else in the cast (Kovacs possibly excepted) to wallow in some back-lot mud (or “mud product’) standing in for Nome’s in the movie’s conclusion. It’s all kind of poignant in a handsome Blu-ray that looks better than any theatrical print I’ve seen of the only time you’ll ever see four-time Oscar winner Leon Shamroy photographing Fabian (he had previously photographed Little Richard and Eddie Cochran in The Girl Can’t Help It). More to the point, Capucine probably taught Shamroy a thing or two about expressively high cheekbones, which must have come in handy when he worked with Anouk Aimee on his final feature: George Cukor’s Justine (which, mostly oddly, has yet to make its way to a home release).