Hanging Tree, The (DVD Review)20 Aug, 2012 By: Mike Clark
Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Stars Gary Cooper, Maria Schell, Karl Malden, George C. Scott.
This is by no means to equate Gary Cooper’s final Western with John Ford’s The Searchers, but one thing I’ve always liked about both pictures is the number of characters in them who are mad or at least more than a little on the “tetched" side. The Searchers has more of them, but The Hanging Tree has its share, starting with the alternately warm and dictatorial physician Cooper plays — one with a mysterious past that involves, for starters, a house burning in another part of the state.
Filmed in Yakima, Wash., the 1959 movie is set in Cooper’s real-life home state Montana. If you’ve ever seen the Jun 8, 1958 episode of NBC’s “Wide Wide World” called “The Western,” there’s a segment with Cooper and Tree director Delmer Daves interviewed on the this most impressive hilly location. (This live broadcast, whose Sunday afternoon airing I saw and recall vividly, is available on the Synergy Entertainment boxed set John Wayne: Bigger Than Life — and featured a huge Western array that also included Wayne, John Ford and even The Great Train Robbery’s Broncho Billy Anderson.) You get a real understanding from Tree of what the right geography can do for an outdoor drama, and it’s all terrifically photographed by Ted McCord, who also shot (talk about an array of cinematic styles) Johnny Belinda, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, East of Eden and The Sound of Music.
Based on a novel by Dorothy M. Johnson, who also wrote a short story that eventually led to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the yarn deals with this mining camp newcomer/doc and an attractive Swiss immigrant (Maria Schell) who has been injured and, for awhile, sun-blinded in a stagecoach robbery. Cooper nurses her back to health with the help of a live-in played by Ben Piazza (in a Hollywood debut that never led to much) — who has been blackmailed, courtesy of the doc’s dark side, into becoming a servant. The innocent Cooper-Schell relationship energizes the town biddies into character assassination against the young woman when you’d think the obvious presence of mining camp prostitutes working their tents (and in a 1959 movie, at that) would provide enough fodder for their outrage.
Similarly disapproving is an unstable preacher played by George C. Scott (his screen debut as well), who spouts crackpot platitudes he’s probably ready willing to forget them if enough material rewards come his way. And speaking of broad performances that may be not be artful yet seem to serve the eccentric fabric, see also Karl Malden as Schell’s eventual prospecting partner — an idea she’s not to keen about because he keeps trying the gold underneath her dress as well. In terms of social skills and basic hygiene, this creep isn’t far removed from the “Jud” character Rod Steiger plays in the screen version of Oklahoma! Until you experience the scene here where Cooper lances the carbuncle on Malden’s behind, you have not lived — though an equally viable audience reaction to the experience might be, “Please, give me death.”
Though some of them weren’t all that well-received at the time, Cooper had a fairly solid late-career run in the mid-to-late ‘50s with Friendly Persuasion, Love in the Afternoon, the once totally ignored Man of the West (probably my favorite Anthony Mann Western) and Tree — though the final three that followed (They Came to Cordura, The Wreck of the Mary Deare and posthumously released The Naked Edge) were non-world-beaters I’d nonetheless like to reward with my first views in several decades, just to check.
In terms of Tree, even Warners seemed to give it slightly short shrift in ’59, concentrating more on Rio Bravo (which it brought out less than two months later) and then Yellowstone Kelly — which, like Bravo, rated a tie-in comic book and had the flack-dom advantages of having Edd “Kookie” Byrnes dying on screen to hit sobbing and even dry-heaving teenaged girls where they lived. But the great Jerry Livingston-Mac David title tune did chart at No. 38 with Billboard for “Marty Robbins,” who sang it over the opening credits and in a reprise at the end on its way to an Oscar nomination for best song in the days when real songs still did. Starting with the release of Cooper’s 1953 Western-like “South American” Blowing Wild, there used to be something close to a federal law that Frankie Laine had to the title tune in all ‘50s Westerns. But he did get to deliver a typically intense rendition of The Hanging Tree on his classic 1961 LP Hell Bent for Leather, with a cool shot of him in a kind of “Fredericks of Tucson” gun belt on the front jacket.
Good to see this Technicolor release (not Warner Color, thank you) in 1.85, by the way. Warner brought it out a million years ago on VHS, but the outhouse demographic still had too loud a voice at that time, so pan-and-scan still ruled the day.