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Burning Hills, The (DVD Review)

12 Sep, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Not rated
Stars Tab Hunter, Natalie Wood, Skip Homeier, Earl Holliman.

It’s just a guess, but we almost have to be talking about the only teen-dream movie ever aimed at the vintage fan magazine demographic that was also based on a Louis L’Amour novel. Oh, well. Hollywood was only one year away from showing Elvis suffer a widescreen prison flogging in Jailhouse Rock, so why not have Tab Hunter taking a bullet, or at least a grazing, in CinemaScope and color? (Though with dribble-y WarnerColor, you never knew for sure what pigment the blood was going to have.)

The picture casts Tab as a character named Trace (you could almost interchange the names) opposite Natalie Wood. The studio tried to sell the two being-groomed performers as a couple and even teamed them again before the same year was out in The Girl He Left Behind (apparently for boys, if Hunter’s engaging tell-all 2005 autobiography is our source). Playing another “Maria,” Wood tries out her future West Side Story Puerto Rican accent (where it worked a little better) to play the hot and hot-spirited daughter of a Yankee father and Mexican mother who schleps food to Tab/Trace when he’s healing in a cave. This is his reward for having shot and wounded the local land baron, horse thief and employer of professional killers who killed Hunter’s brother. Playing this swell guy is veteran character actor Ray Teal, a personal favorite who’d been previously memorable as the local desert-hell sheriff, rattlesnake fancier and Kirk Douglas soulmate in public insincerity in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole.

For an actor of generally monotonal deliveries who graced the covers of Photoplay, Screen Stories and their ilk, Hunter managed to work with such noteworthy directors as William A. Wellman (twice), German silent veteran E.A. Dupont (twice), Raoul Walsh, George Abbott and Stanley Donen (teamed), Phil Karlson, Sidney Lumet, Robert Rossen and — if you count the bit part that marked his screen debut – Joseph Losey. Meanwhile, Wood was coming off an Oscar nomination for the previous year’s Rebel without a Cause followed by an appearance in The Searchers — though, in general, the actress’s contract pictures at Warners were so mediocre that her 1961 double whammy of Splendor in the Grass and West Side Story constituted a comeback (at age 23, unless you think it’s only today that things move fast).

I suppose Hills was one of the pictures she had to come back from, but for a while it qualifies as moderate fun until the romantic angle becomes subsidiary to a pack of grousing heavies — including a designated punk No. 1 who even stoops to shooting Claude Akins in the back. This lout is played by that great oval-face (and, yes, grouser) Skip Homeier, who, by coincidence, I recently just watched again taking a few well-deserved sucker punches sheriff Millard Mitchell at the end of Henry King’s The Gunfighter. The same year he appeared in Hills, the frequently typed Homeier played another wayward youth in William Witney’s admired sleeper Stranger At My Door over at then fading Republic Pictures — though later in his career, he surprised by sometimes playing good guys. In the early ‘60s, I even saw him in 30-second a commercial playing a camp counselor, complete with, if memory serves, the obligatory prop department muscle shirt and whistle around his neck. Even then, I thought it disorientingly weird

The main thing, though, is that even with a movie this marginal, Warner Home Video (including its on-demand releases) knows how to make a presentation. Even now, in the second decade of a new century, you’re not likely to see a properly widescreen version of a CinemaScope Western even on the Encore’s the Westerns Channel. And just this summer, Disney gave a laid pan-and-scan rendering on the same year’s 2.35-to-1 Westward Ho, the Wagons! — source of Fess Parker’s No. 12 Billboard chart-buster “Wringle Wrangle” (which, by the way, hit almost exactly as Tab was going No. 1 with Young Love). For this, Mickey should have his ears pinned back or maybe removed Reservoir Dogs style. Hell, even iTunes has done well by “Wringle Wrangle.” It’s next to Sinatra’s “Can I Steal a Little Love” on my iPod’s January 1957, grouping.

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