The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Lusty Men

When it comes to sports, I'll give just about anything a shot, and thanks to ESPN's family of networks I've gotten that shot at seeing all sorts of unique sporting events from the basics to fringe sports like bowling or billiards.  Then there's rodeo, a sport I've never really understood and some of that may have to do with where I've lived most of my life, Illinois and Indiana.  While not as violent as say bullfighting, rodeo has always rubbed me the wrong way for its treatment of animals.

TCM aired 1952's The Lusty Men last week, a story with the rodeo as the setting.  Before I get into this movie, I should say I've seen and enjoyed other rodeo movies like Junior Bonner with Steve McQueen or J.W. Coop with Cliff Robertson.  Some sports translate well to a movie form, football, basketball, baseball all come to mind, but I just don't think rodeo is one of them.  Up close and personal, I imagine it's a lot better to view, but there's a main flaw I have trouble getting past when it comes to movie versions.  That's for later though, let's talk story.

After one too many accidents on the rodeo circuit, past-his-prime cowboy Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum) gets a job as a ranch-hand where he meets fellow cowboy Wes Merritt (Arthur Kennedy).  Wes instantly recognizes Jeff and begs him to teach him some techniques and strategies for being successful at rodeos.  Married for two years to wife Louise (Susan Hayward), Wes is trying to save up $5,000 so they can buy a spread for themselves, but at his pay rate it will take years.  With Jeff's help, he sees a way to get the money fast, by joining the rodeo.  Louise is adamantly against it, but there's nothing she can do to stop her husband, sending him down a road she's worried he'll never come back down.

I was a little disappointed in the story here because for the first 90 minutes it is as predictable as possible.  If you've ever seen a movie with a teacher/mentor and a youngster/student, you basically know where this one is going.  McCloud and Merritt start off on the right foot, the younger cowboy idolizing his hero as he teaches him all he knows about the business.  But the second Wes gets any taste of success, he begins to resent his teacher who he previously looked up to. He doesn't want to be held back and wants to explore this new world on his own.

If about 15 minutes you haven't figured out where this movie is going, shame on you.  Wes does get a taste of the big-time after a lifetime of scraping by from month to month.  At first all he wanted was a little place of his own, but now he's living on easy street so why should he go back to busting his hump?  My only question in all of this was whether Mitchum's Jeff was going to pounce on Hayward's Louise.  That issue is resolved late, and I give props to director Nicholas Ray for not taking the easy way out. The ending as is has one character making a sacrifice -- unintentionally so -- that ends up making the other two very happy.

Watching this predictable storyline, hopefully you'll be saved by the three starring performances.  Mitchum plays his typical laid back, uber-cool guy who never gets too rattled by anything.  He drifts along, letting Kennedy do the heavy lifting with the meatier role of the cowboy turned rodeo star.  Through all their ups and downs though, the two still have a friendship that can't be broken up.  A wordless scene late between them -- a smile and a wink here -- show it will take more than one fight to split them up.  Hayward is the strongest part of the movie playing a woman who just wants to be happy with her husband, even though it seems he wants nothing to do with settling down.  Also, Arthur Hunnicutt plays Booker Davis, a former rodeo star now a near-cripple.  For the most part, Hunnicutt doesn't over-do it as his parts so often required him to do. Frank Faylen plays a stock owner traveling along with the rodeo.

Even with the rodeo movies I've enjoyed as mentioned above, my issue is with the actual rodeo scenes.  One, studios aren't going to let stars like Mitchum, McQueen, Kennedy, and Robertson actually do any bronc riding or bulldogging.  Instead, we get a quick shot of the star on a horse/bull and a quick cut to an actual cowboy in a long shot in the ring.  Repeat this over and over to your heart's delight.  I don't know now if CGI could help this, but it is always distracting and can be downright dull at times watching cowboys or stunt doubles take over instead of the actors.

While these rodeo scenes can be a little slow moving, the movie as a whole is still worth a watch.  Ray has some fun with some interesting looking camerawork, and the actors are all solid -- especially Hayward -- in making these three characters full-fledged, 3-D, believable people and not just cardboard cutouts.

The Lusty Men <----TCM trailer (1952): ** 1/2 /****

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