Yellow Sky (Blu-ray Review)18 Jul, 2016 By: Mike Clark
Stars Gregory Peck, Anne Baxter, Richard Widmark.
Spanning, say, the immediate postwar years into the CinemaScope late-1950s, Twentieth Century-Fox really knew (as well as or even better than anyone) how to craft your basic bread-and-butter studio Western. Which was: the kind of big-star efforts that didn’t aspire to reinventing the wheel (or even the genre), but which radiated a significant degree of viewer comfort from watching pros at work. Rawhide, with Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward, was one of these, and Kino Classics will have it on Blu-ray in a couple weeks. Another was William A. Wellman’s Yellow Sky, which Fox originally brought out for the year-end holiday trade in 1948 — even if the white we see on the ground here has nothing to do with snow but with desert salt flats that neither the movie’s horses nor human characters come to regard as any day at the beach.
Gregory Peck, wearing a concealed left-leg brace for a real-life broken ankle he suffered just before what had to be an arduous shoot, plays the brains of a bank-robbing band that the rest of its scruffy crew addresses as “Stretch.” These dudes walk quietly into a dusty-town bank and effortlessly lighten the place of its stash, eventually escaping hot-trotting cavalrymen in pursuit, though not before one of Peck’s party is killed. The only way for them to complete the escape is to go across the desert, which means that the only thing keeping the movie from having a 12-minute running time is the life-saving ghost town (complete with spring water) that emerges on the horizon for real. Of course, in one way, it only kind of emerges because a couple long shots of this burg employ one of the most obvious matte paintings you’ll ever see. Fortunately, most of the production here is grade-A, even though the setting here will never make anyone’s Club Med catalog.
Once it sinks in that the town is of the ghost variety, the last thing these thieves expect to see is a woman — and a fairly comely woman to boot played by Anne Baxter in jeans. She is, turns out, keeping house for her grandfather (James Barton), an affable geezer who’s been prospecting successfully, though such an obvious motivator of thieves who care as much or more about silver and gold than the contours of Baxter’s jeans isn’t immediately divulged. Wellman wasn’t much for simpering actresses, and according to Wellman Jr. (heard on the Blu-ray commentary track), he specifically wanted to cast Baxter, who had recently won a supporting Oscar for The Razor’s Edge. She’s quite good in the role, though it’s interesting to note that Fox originally had in mind Paulette Goddard, an actress it would have been fun to see in jeans wrestling on the ground with Peck once his character turns a bit frisky. Maybe Darryl Zanuck liked this kind of stuff (Marilyn Monroe wrestles Robert Mitchum in River of No Return as well); in any event, no stunt doubles were employed, ankle-brace or not.
As portrayed, Baxter reminds me a little here of the hellcat Ella Raines plays in 1944’s Tall in the Saddle — where by virtue of that one film, Raines became, to my eye, one of John Wayne’s three best leading ladies along with Maureen O’Hara and Gail Russell. Baxter spends a lot of time here pointing firearms at males, even though at least two others in the band (John Russell, Robert Arthur) display some romantic interest to go along with Peck’s. Baxter initially rejects the relatively well-bred Peck’s advances, but there’s also evidence that she’s feeling a few telltale tinglies when he’s around. Of course, when the alternative is a life washing gramps’s long-johns outdoors in the spring, who can blame her?
The result is pure Fox all the way, with a Lamar Trotti script, Alfred Newman music (he lifts his own title theme from 1940’s Brigham Young, Frontiersman — and not for the only time) and cinematography by Joe MacDonald, who from My Darling Clementine through The Sand Pebbles in particular, remains underrated by anyone who neglects to call him one of the all-timers. Decked out in something close to the costume he wore in Garden of Evil (recently released on a Twilight Time Blu-ray), Richard Widmark plays the slickest of the robbers. Wellman Jr. says on the commentary that this was only the actor’s second film after his Oscar-nominated “hood” debut in Kiss of Death, where he memorably proved to be no friend to the wheelchair-bound. If this is somehow true, Sky was still the fourth Widmark film released, following The Street With No Name and Road House (it, too, coming to Blu-ray soon).
Though the younger Wellman’s Wild Bill documentary on his father is one of the most dynamic filmmaker biopics ever, his commentary here is on the sporadic and reserved level despite some valuable anecdotes from his days on the Sky set as a kid. When he notes that the horse Peck rides was the most famous of the period, I wondered what the presumably agitated Trigger Lobby might have to say about this. But then it turns out that the creature was a favored riding partner of Clark Gable, John Wayne and a slew of others, so maybe.
As was often the case, Wellman Sr. sometimes stages key bits of action partly behind obscuring objects so that our imaginations can go to work. He’s up front and in our faces, however, in the scene where Peck almost drowns John Russell by forcing the latter’s head underwater for so long that you almost wonder if Russell is going to get the bends. When I worked in the film department of a CBS affiliate for five years during high school and college, this was a scene the station’s censor wouldn’t let get by for airing (as in, ”kids, don’t try this at home”). The clip ended up on a 16mm “greatest hits” reel of forbidden footage that my boss used to show during periodic guests shots in campus TV classes, along with the notorious "Sweet Marijuana" number from Murder at the Vanities and others that could never be as choice as that.