Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Heath Holland On...Canadian Pacific / The Cariboo Trail

by Heath Holland
Kino Lorber brings us two newly-restored Canadian westerns featuring Randolph Scott. Let’s take a closer look, eh?

It’s a great time to be a fan of Randolph Scott. Or maybe more accurately, it’s a great time to DISCOVER Randolph Scott. The actor starred in over 100 films—around 60 of them being westerns—but many of them have been very hard to see until recently. In the past year alone, no less than 15 Randolph Scott westerns that were previously out of print, trapped on VHS, or languishing in public domain hell have been rescued and released to eager western film collectors. Two of these are 1949’s Canadian Pacific and 1950’s The Cariboo Trail, the products of a lengthy restoration project that finds these two movies looking better than possibly even their original theatrical run.

Both films were produced by Nat Holt and directed by Edwin L. Marin, the man behind the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol as well as the 1944 John Wayne film Tall in the Saddle. Randolph Scott and Edwin L. Marin collaborated on seven films, with six of them being made between 1949 until 1951 when Marin passed away unexpectedly. Both of these movies were filmed on 35mm using a method called Cinecolor, which was a cheap color-filming technique that primarily registered a limited palate of blues and reds. It was a short-lived format that was quickly abandoned in favor of more accurate methods that became cheap enough for B-films to utilize during the 1950s.
Both films are solid double-feature fare. Canadian Pacific tells a fictionalized story about the early days of the Canadian railroad as it spread across the frontier and into the Canadian Rockies. Randolph Scott plays a Railroad scout who is trying to find a pass through the mountains so the railroad can continue its expansion westward. He encounters corrupt railroad employees, angry natives, and trappers who would rather see him dead than see their wilderness developed into towns. Along the way, Scott balances the affections of both a prim and proper doctor (Jane Wyatt, Father Knows Best, Gentlemen’s Agreement) and a plucky frontier girl (Nancy Olson, Sunset Boulevard). This still feels very much like an old-fashioned movie, with very standard characterization and some of the staccato line delivery that typified the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Canadian Pacific has a few elements that save it from total mediocrity. The first is the lavish cinematography in the actual Canadian wilderness. The wide open spaces of Canada look absolutely nothing like the deserts or plains of the usual westerns of this time, and the lush greenery and mountain waterfalls are a welcome change of scenery for what is, essentially, a standard western story. Another plus is the presence of actual Native Americans, as opposed to the usual Caucasian actors in makeup and wigs. Every single “Indian” role is occupied by an actual Native American, which is both surprising and impressive given the way movie studios normally operated during this era. Unfortunately, how the film uses these Native Americans is a huge bummer, with at least one jaw-dropping moment of insensitivity played completely for laughs. I think it’s important to try and keep the historic context of older movies in mind when watching them, but that’s hard to do with what they pull here.
As with most B-westerns, though, the performances are where the film shines. Randolph Scott isn’t the charismatic, trail-worn survivor he would become in the latter half of the 1950s as he approached his swan song Ride the High Country, but he’s likable enough here, if a little vanilla. Jane Wyatt is a strong female character and is well established as a successful doctor, again something seemingly out of character for this time. Nancy Olson really shines in this movie. This is her first credited screen appearance, the year before she appeared in the classic Sunset Boulevard, and you can tell that she had the right stuff. Hers is a role that could have ended up as your typical hand-wringing little lady back home, but the part becomes feisty and fresh in the hands of Olson. She would later go on to appear in a few of Disney’s live-action movies (The Absent Minded Professor, for one), but she never really found stardom and spent most of the next thirty years doing guest spots on television dramas. It’s disappointing that we only have a few great movie performances from her.

The Cariboo Trail fares much better. In a lot of ways, it’s a straight-up western and serves as a small herald to the greatness that was about to come throughout the rest of the 1950s as the western genre soared to new heights. Where Canadian Pacific feels rooted in the early days of Hollywood, The Cariboo Trail feels like a step has been taken forward. Randolph Scott is still a solid good guy, but there are shades of gray forming in all of the characters and a little bit more depth all around. It’s not a great movie by any means, but it’s definitely a ‘50s western and displays a lot of the qualities that typify westerns made during that period.
In this story, Randolph Scott is a Montana cowboy who has migrated to Canada in search of better circumstances. There’s a gold rush on and the north offers a new life and new opportunities. All he finds there is trouble, with a corrupt land owner basically holding an entire town hostage. The Cariboo Trail crams in just about every western cliché and trope that I can think of: cattle herds, stampedes, Indian attacks, saloon brawls, and a shootout. I mark this as a good thing. Like Canadian Pacific, the cinematography and score defy the low budget.

Unfortunately, instead of Native American actors, we have reverted back to white guys in makeup basically frowning and saying “how.” In place of genuine Canadian landscapes, Edwin Marin chose to shoot in the climes of Colorado, letting the peaks and valleys stand in for The Great White North. There’s also quite a bit of set-bound studio filming as opposed to the open spaces of Canadian Pacific.

Yet what The Cariboo Trail sacrifices in location, it makes up for in watchability. Western stalwart George “Gabby” Hayes is in the cast, and he shines as a frontier man making his way in the wilderness. Regrettably, this is his last movie performance. There’s also a role played by Lee Tung Foo, a Chinese-American actor who is never used for laughs and who contributes to the big picture as an equal. Karin Booth (the Cold-War-era robot movie Tobor the Great) plays a saloon girl named Francie, and Bill Williams (Deadline at Dawn) gets an actual character arc as a man who has his arm severed in a stampede and slowly descends into bitterness and anger. Because it’s the fifties, it only adds to the charm that you can see his “lost” arm clearly stuffed inside his shirt. The story here is more of an adventure than a drama, and it benefits the film overall.
The restoration of these two films was undertaken by a company called Ignite Films. Using original nitrate elements and the film negatives themselves, they were able to reconstruct the two movies without the loss of a single frame. Because Cinecolor didn’t last very long as a format, subsequent re-releases of these movies were either made in black and white or were made using Eastman color techniques, which led to a washed out, dull picture. Even airings on TCM have looked pretty terrible because the best prints available were still far below standard. Ignite Films color corrected each frame back to the original vision and even left in some flaws that couldn’t be repaired without resulting in digital artifacting. Both films even have a brief scene at the end (the end titles, which show 20th Century Fox as the distributor) which had been cut and wasn’t available in color, so they’ve inserted it in black and white rather than leave it out altogether or colorize the footage they had to make it match. There’s always a debate among high-definition enthusiasts over leaving in original flawed elements to retain integrity or replacing them digitally for a cleaner picture. Personally, I tend to prefer the former, which is why I’m very happy with the results of both of these projects.

Frankly, neither Canadian Pacific or The Cariboo Trail is going to blow anyone’s mind. They’re average westerns for the time, made with tight budgets and using second-tier actors; neither were designed to do anything more than entertain viewers for a couple of hours. Yet both films are a boon for western enthusiasts and collectors eager to see the work of Randolph Scott in the best quality available. Too many of these old B-movies have been lost to time or have been so mistreated over the years that finding a watchable print is next to impossible. Thanks to Ignite Films and Kino Lorber, these two westerns made at a turning point in Hollywood have been restored for future generations.

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