Lust in the Dust
Duel in the Sun was very much Selznick’s project and it had his own stamp on it. Enormous-budget vulgar potboilers were what he did, as the dreadful Gone With the Wind had proved (which was nothing other than an expensive filming of a cheap romance) and he was certainly never involved in a half-decent Western, about the nearest being RKO’s 1932 Richard Dix picture The Conquerors. Still, he has his admirers.
Part of the problem with Duel in the Sun is the casting, principally that of Jennifer Jones as the half-breed heroine Pearl. She was absolutely awful. Her most restrained form of performance was Overacting. Mostly she chewed the scenery. On location she probably had to be restrained from chewing the rocks. The IMDb bio calls her “One of the world’s most underrated Academy Award-winning actresses” and perhaps she was, in other genres. I’m not qualified to say. But judging by her part in this movie she was very far from that. She was of course a, what shall we say?, protégée of Selznick and they would wed three years later (at the time of Duel both Selznick and Jones were already married to others). Jones had had a small part in a John Wayne Three Mesquiteers picture before the war. That and Duel were her only Westerns. Just as well, my friends.
Then second billing went to Joseph Cotten, who was another actor unsuited to Westerns. He was only ever good in one (Two Flags West in 1950) but he seemed to like the genre, unfortunately, for he did ten, among them some real clunkers, as well as making appearances on Western TV shows. He plays the ‘good’ son Jesse in Duel – and struggles.
Gregory Peck was one of our leading Western actors, and watching him in The Gunfighter, say, or The Bravados, you appreciate his real quality. In Duel, however, his first Western, he had to play the wicked son, Lewton, known as Lewt, the spoilt ne’er-do-well who seduces Pearl but would never dream of actually marrying such a lower-class half-breed. It is a huge credit to Peck that he did it so well, so convincingly, but he was acting against type, and furthermore the Cotten/Peck combination simply didn’t work.
Once you get to an older generation of actor, however, you do get real quality. Jesse and Lewt’s father, rich rancher Senator McCanles, is Lionel Barrymore, a giant of the profession. Ruling his million-acre empire in Texas from a wheelchair, he is magnificently loathsome as the patriarch. Barrymore didn’t do many Westerns, considering that his career was so long, but he was in quite a few silent ones (they were so common in those days he couldn’t really avoid it). Incidentally, whether because of Barrymore’s part in this or not, rich ranchers in wheelchairs or on crutches became quite the thing (Arch Strobie in Vengeance Valley in 1951, Dan Wells in The Lonesome Trail in 1955, Lew Wilkison in The Violent Men the same year, or John Forbes in The Last of the Fast Guns in ’58).
Senator McCanles’s wife, the boys’ mother, Laura Belle, is played by veteran Lillian Gish, who started in our noble genre as a girl way back in the silent days, appearing for DW Griffith in The Battle of Elderbush Gulch in 1913, and was memorable again for Griffith in The Birth of a Nation two years later. She stunned audiences in 1928 as the frontier woman driven mad in The Wind. As an older lady she played memorably in Duel, was superb in The Night of the Hunter and The Unforgiven, her last Western (though she went on working right into the late 1980s). Looked at today, the style of acting in the old silent movies is almost painful; over-the top melodramatics were expected. And there are moments when she slips into that in Duel (for example, she can’t resist cornily overdoing her death) but mostly she is sweetly maternal, and stoic in dealing with her highly unpleasant husband, and she often simply and subtly steals the show. It’s worth seeing the movie just for her.
Then we have the fine Charles Bickford as rancher Sam Pierce, who proposes to Pearl and (again rather improbably) is accepted, but is gunned down by Peck in the saloon before they can marry. Bickford was always good, and was often to be seen in Westerns, from an early 3 Godfathers-style picture, the William Wyler-directed talkie Hell’s Heroes in 1929, to the sound version of Cecil B DeMille’s The Squaw Man in 1931, his part as the villain in DeMille’s The Plainsman in ’36 (he was mauled by a lion in 1935 and in the absence of lead roles took character parts thenceforth) and many others. He was Pat Garrett in the Joel McCrea Western Four Faces West in 1948 and was also memorable in The Unforgiven. He would be back with Peck (and Wyler) in 1958 in The Big Country.
And who should be the tough railroad detective who has to combat the ruthless rancher but Harry Carey, one of the truly great Western actors. He dominated the genre from the silent days under DW Griffith and John Ford, then in talkies he was the Doc Holliday figure in the ’32 Law and Order with Huston, and would go right through to Red River with Howard Hawks in 1948.
And lastly, of the towering figures of Hollywood, we have Walter Huston hamming it up unmercifully (and clearly hugely enjoying himself) as the very dubious preacher The Sinkiller. Huston only did eight Westerns but who can forget his Trampas in the 1929 The Virginian (the best ever version)? Or his Wyatt Earp-like figure in Law and Order with Harry Carey? Or his Oscar-winning part in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre with Bogart, directed by his son John in 1948? OK, he was completely ridiculous as Doc Holliday in The Outlaw but then anyone would have been; that Howard Hughes movie was complete trash.
Duel in the Sun therefore had a remarkable line-up and it is only a pity that the leads were so miscast.
Orson Welles does the intro voiceover.
As for the directing, King Vidor was credited. Vidor is in the Guinness Book of Records as having had the longest career as a film director, spanning 67 years, 1913 to 1980, and of course he was nominated for the Best Director Oscar five times, finally winning an Honorary Award. He only directed five Westerns though, starting with the 1930 Billy the Kid with Johnny Mack Brown, helming the Fred MacMurray version of The Texas Rangers in ’36, co-directing the pretty dire Northwest Passage starring Spencer Tracy in 1940 and, after Duel in the Sun, directing Kirk Douglas in Man Without a Star in 1955. It wasn’t really a top-notch CV in the genre. But in Duel his hands were tied by constant usurpations of the director’s role from Selznick himself, and not only that, Selznick used, for different scenes, Otto Brower, B Reeves Eason, William Dieterle, Sidney Franklin, William Cameron Menzies and even Josef von Sternberg, among others. No wonder the end result was a hodge-podge. As the Rough Guide to Westerns says, it had “a cast of 2500 and only 2443 fewer directors.”
Selznick himself cooked up the screenplay from a novel by Niven Busch (a fine writer, himself a screenplayist – I especially admire Pursued – whose stories were filmed several times) but once again there were contributions from others – notably Oliver HP Garrett and Ben Hecht. I don’t think Busch was responsible for Jones’s screeched line, “I’m trash, I tell ya, trash!”
And there were three directors of photography. Lee Garmes did a lot of it but Ray Rennahan and Harold Rosson were also credited as DP and shot several scenes. Selznick had a particular ‘look’ in mind for the Technicolor picture and best way you could describe it would be lurid. Violent filters, especially orange, were much used. At one point Harry Carey says, “There’s a funny glow in the sky tonight, ain’t there?” You’re telling me!
A funny glow in the sky
You have certainly heard the expression ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth’, and it comes to mind when you watch this picture.
Of course money was no object and the budget was gargantuan. Production costs were six and a half million mid-1940s dollars (the biggest budget to date) and $2m went on a publicity campaign. Selznick released the picture himself. Though the film was ‘successful’ in terms of numbers of viewers, it only barely broke even. A re-release in 1954 helped.
People bought tickets in enormous numbers and it was certainly spectacular. The train crash (Lewt derails a shipment of explosives to help out his dad) was itself an amazing – and doubtless extremely expensive – scene.
But the critics panned the movie, understandably. It rapidly gained the nickname Lust in the Dust, and the name stuck. Perhaps that even improved ticket sales. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times said, “Despite all his flashy exploitation, Mr. Selznick can’t long hide the fact that his multimillion-dollar Western is a spectacularly disappointing job.” Crowther talked of “the ultimate banality of the story and its juvenile slobbering over sex”. He was as polite as possible when talking of Jennifer Jones: “She has to pretend to be the passion-torn child of nature in the loosest theatrical style.” Very diplomatic. Variety called it “raw, sex-laden, western pulp fiction, told in 10-20-30 style”. Other reviewers have said that “It’s big, it’s sprawling, it’s overheated, it’s colorful, but it’s not very good” and called it “One big, overblown stinker, a pretentious B-Western not worthy of its all-star cast.”
Still, critics are one thing, viewers are another. Duel in the Sun and The Outlaw may have been bad but they were the biggest-grossing Westerns of the 1940s. Sex pays, even in 1940s censored form. In fact, adjusted for inflation, Duel in the Sun remains the most financially successful Western of them all.
A movie censor in Memphis told the producer that the picture “contains all the iniquities of the foulest human dross.” Selznick ought to have put that on the poster. Sales would have been even better.
Most of the ticket-buyers probably weren’t hard-core Western fans. If true Westernistas did go, hoping for another classy 1946 oater along the lines of that year’s Canyon Passage say, or My Darling Clementine, they were sorely disappointed.
Lust in the Dust is certainly too long. It was first shown at 2 hours 24 minutes, though mercifully later shortened to the common present-day version of 129 minutes. Some of the Dmitri Tiomkin music is grating, some overblown, though perhaps suitable for the show. Lillian Gish sings Beautiful Dreamer at the piano and subsequently whenever she appears or is mentioned Hollywood angels croon the tune in their slushiest way, like a (very) poor person’s Wagner opera. It certainly doesn’t get you to the end any more quickly, though it does increase your urge to.
The character of the ‘Negro maid’ Vashti (Butterfly McQueen) is just plain toe-curlingly embarrassing to us now, though probably considered hilarious by the (white) audience then. Senator McCanles’s viciously racist language when Pearl (whose mother was Native American) arrives in his house is also hard to listen to for modern ears (and how modern, dear e-readers, our ears indubitably are). Actually, these figures are so very offensive that I think right-minded people, even at the time, would have disliked them.
Certain scenes do stick in the memory of a Western-lover, it must be said. The train crash I mentioned but also the hundreds of riders converging on the railroad camp, Peck taming a stallion, and much of his riding (though doubtless some of it was stunt-doubled), the US Cavalry arriving in the nick of time, the Cotten/Peck showdown in the main street (the loud clip-clops and boot tramps must have been an influence on spaghetti directors) and so on.
The ending is completely over the top and your last word, once The End comes up, will probably be, “Jeez!”
Restrained it ain’t
Not being an auteuriste, I hesitate usually to refer to “King Vidor’s Billy the Kid“, for example, or “Howard Hawks’s Red River” but I can’t really help thinking of this film as David O Selznick’s Duel in the Sun. It’s such an immensely personal creation. In his guide to Westerns Stagecoach to Tombstone, author Howard Hughes says, “Duel is an overblown, hysterical western, picturesque in Technicolor, but also tasteless, self-regarding and tedious.” Yup. It’s a massive, stylized, soap-opera extravaganza grafted onto a rancher/nesters/railroad Western. In the last resort, though, it’s a must-see, a hugely amusing bad movie that can’t be missed.