The Far Horizons

Talkie of the Week: The Far Horizons

USA 1955, 108 minutes, color, Paramount Pictures. Director: Rudolph Maté, Written by Winston Miller, Based on the novel Sacajawea of the Shoshones by Della Gould Emmons. Cast: Fred MacMurray, Charlton Heston, Donna Reed, Barbara Hale, William Demarest, Alan Reed, Eduardo Noriega, Larry Pennell, Julia Montoya, Ralph Moody, Herbert Heyes, Lester Matthews, Helen Wallace, Walter Reed.

Plot summary: After purchasing the Louisiana Territory in the early 1800s, President Jefferson sends Meriwether Lewis and William Clark out West to explore the new territory and claim the adjacent land leading to the Pacific Ocean for the United States.

The_Far_Horizons_1955Review: There are a lot of things one could say about Paramount Pictures’ The Far Horizons, historically correct is not one of them. As one of the few features (if not the only) ever made about the Lewis and Clark expedition (1803-06), the film is a piece of fiction rather than a serious rendition of actual events. Dominated by a dramatic love story, the film borrowed an exciting setting to weave a colorful story around an adventure that in itself bears enough material for two feature-length adaptations. Based on Sacajawea of the Shoshones though, a novel by Della Gould Emmons, The Far Horizons falls sadly short of paying tribute to a now famous team of brave explorers.

Sacajawea, although praised as a key figure of the successful expedition, is but a mere shadow of the actual historic figure. Donna Reed – refurbished with a wig, her skin a deep made-up brown – did a decent job transforming herself into a native teenager who, as fiction would have it, falls in love with Charlton Heston’s philandering Lieutenant Clark. But the spark is strangely missing. Reduced to an unfortunate loser in love, Fred MacMurray did his best to flesh out his version of Meriwether Lewis, a man who (in real life) presumably committed suicide a few short years after completing his expedition but was on friendly terms with his fellow explorers. Barbara Hale played Julia Hancock, a young woman who choses Clark over Lewis in the beginning of the movie and has to deal with her fiancé’s change of heart when he returns to Washington in the end. Although none of the heartache ever happened, Barbara Hale’s scenes with the main characters are heartbreaking and one of the reasons to give this picture an honest chance. It’s also a plus to see this film released in widescreen format on DVD. Produced in Technicolor and VistaVision, the nature shots are beautiful and even breathtaking at times, the quality genuinely mid-1950s.

In general, The Far Horizons is not the kind of film you may turn to more than once (unless you are a fan of one of the above mentioned actors). Rated by Time Magazine as one of top ten historically most misleading films in 2011, the plot definitely leaves a lot to be desired. It is still a film, however, that – despite its many controversies – also has acting highlights towards the end and even offers discreet comments about society, including the status of the female sex.

Watch the original trailer here.

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Jolson Sings Again

Talkie of the Week: Jolson Sings Again

USA 1949, 96 minutes, color, Columbia Pictures. Director: Henry Levin, Producer: Sidney Buchman, Written by: Sidney Buchman. Cast: Larry Parks, Barbara Hale, William Demarest, Bill Goodwin, Ludwig Donath, Tamara Shayne,

Plot summary: Al Jolson’s success story continues after the divorce from his first wife. He has to learn to come to terms with life outside of show business and the struggles to return to it.

Review: Jolson Sings Again is one of those rare examples of a sequel that lives up to the original film it is based on. The film does not only pick up where The Jolson Story left us, it also continues to charm us with its many convincing performances, Al Jolson’s memorable music and its predecessor’s fairytale quality.

Jolson Sings Again shows an aging and changed Al Jolson who throws himself into work after his wife has left him, only to retreat himself to a jet set life after his many shows start to wear him out. Primarily a star of gossip sections for many years, he finally decides to return to what he does best and is one of the first performers to entertain the troops abroad, starting as early as 1942. Although deeply committed to his assignment, Al Jolson is sent home from Europe after he is struck down by a fever and collapses. He wakes up in an Army hospital to the tender care of Ellen Clark, a hearty young nurse from Arkansas. The story continues as it should: Al falls in love with Ellen and marries her. Her earthy wisdom and classic beauty complement his restlessness with utmost patience and care. It is her, in contrast to his first wife, who supports his passion for singing and the stage. Although commanding him to rest enough to cure his fever, she also encourages him to resume his career in order to kill the boredom and frustration he is struggling with by sitting home all day. It is apparent that his second wife is very different from his first.

Jolson Sings Again ends on a happy note as a good Hollywood fairytale should. It is bittersweet in essence, but very inspiring. Larry Parks gives another breathtaking performance as Al Jolson, lip-synching the master to perfection and adding a believable tranquility to his otherwise lively character. Parks has a sparkling on-screen chemistry with Barbara Hale who plays good-natured, beautiful and savvy Ellen Clark. Based on Al Jolson’s fourth wife in real life, fictitious Ellen Clark adds to the skillful depiction of authentic characters, performed with ease and graceful sweetness by Baby Face Barbara Hale.

Available on VHS and DVD.

The Jolson Story

Talkie of the Week: The Jolson Story

USA 1946, 128 minutes, color, Columbia Pictures. Director: Alfred E. Green, Producer: Sidney Sklolsky, Written by: Stephen Longstreet, Sidney Buchman, Harry Chandlee, Andrew Solt. Cast: Larry Parks, Evelyn Keyes, William Demarest, Bill Goodwin, Ludwig Donath, Scotty Beckett, Tamara Shayne, Jo-Carroll Dennison, John Alexander

Plot summary: A young Jewish boy called Asa Yoelson stumbles into show business at the beginning of the 20th century and becomes a star of his own making as Al Jolson.

Review: The Jolson Story is modeled on the life of performer Al Jolson, famous singer, actor and comedian. The film, though partly fictionalized, shows Al Jolson’s roots in Vaudeville and Burlesque theater at the beginning of the 20th century and paints a rather dazzling picture of the rise of America’s famous Broadway, movie and Jazz star from the 1920s and 30s.

Larry Parks plays Al Jolson and does a beautiful job merging his own acting with original sound recordings made by Al Jolson himself. He was rightly rewarded with an Academy Award nomination for this film which features a lot of Al Jolson’s popular songs in an always exciting 128 minutes. Larry Parks is supported by a sparkling Evelyn Keyes and a highly entertaining William Demarest. Ludwig Donath and Tamara Shayne play Jolson’s parents and only add to the charm of this colorful tour de force. Originally a black & white feature, the film’s opulent scenery and production convinced studio chief Harry Cohn to re-shoot the already existing material in color – a mastermind decision, especially for the stage scenes and the overall musical appeal of the film.

All in all, The Jolson Story is a delicious example of 1940s commercial cinema. With its mixture of great acting and catchy tunes, the film is a perfect piece of nostalgia in our entertainment-hungry times. It’s an excellent lesson in the art of story-telling that uplifts the audience, as well as its protagonist and stars. Watched in combination with its sequel Jolson Sings Again (released in 1949), this  double feature package is a rhythmic treat on a relaxed Sunday afternoon with a bowl of popcorn and a pot of hot tea. A great reminder of “the good old days” when Hollywood still knew how to sell fairytales.

Available on VHS and DVD.