High, Wide and Handsome

Movie Information

CANCELED due to weather. This will be rescheduled. In Brief: Rouben Mamoulian did his most important work at Paramount, but he'd left the studio in 1933. In 1937 he came back for one more film — the little seen and mostly forgotten High, Wide and Handsome. The film was an obvious attempt — with its period setting, its Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II songs and star Irene Dunne — to be the next Show Boat, which had been a hit for James Whale the year before. And though it formed the bridge between Show Boat and the Broadway production of Oklahoma! (which Hammerstein wrote and Mamoulian directed), High, Wide and Handsome was only a middling box office success. Theories abound as to why — the lack of a singing male lead, the fact that it had no songs to equal "Make Believe," "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," and, especially, "Ol' Man River" — it didn't click. My own belief is that it mostly had to do with the fact that Mamoulian was using techniques that had fallen out of favor — long, slow dissolves, optical wipes, a blend of naturalism and intense stylization — and that seemed odd in 1937. These things are less a problem now because we're looking at it more as an "old movie" in general terms and aren't thrown by it being out of step with 1937 movies. In any case, High, Wide and Handsome is a fine film — beautiful to look at, stylish and very entertaining. It gets better every time I see it, too.  
Genre: Musical
Director: Rouben Mamoulian (Love Me Tonight)
Starring: Irene Dunne, Randolph Scott, Dorothy Lamour, Elizabeth Patterson, Raymond Walburn, Charles Bickford, Akim Tamiroff
Rated: NR



The first — and perhaps last until recently — time I saw Rouben Mamoulian’s High, Wide and Handsome I was maybe 17 years old. (I know I was still in high school.) I was disappointed by it. At the time, the only of Mamoulian’s films I had seen were Love Me Tonight (1932) and Silk Stockings (1957). The first was — and still is — on my list of best movies of all time. The second I had just liked a lot. But High, Wide and Handsome just kind of left me cold. I blame this in part on the fact that the Kern-Hammerstein songs weren’t as distinctive and catchy as the Rodgers and Hart songs in Love Me Tonight or as the Cole Porter ones in Silk Stockings. Of course, they wouldn’t be since the story is set in the 19th century, but that didn’t occur to me then. I also hadn’t even come close to absorbing the language of film Mamoulian had developed. But mostly I blame the fact that I was a kid. Seeing it again at 60 — with a better understanding of film in general and Mamoulian in particular — was a revelation. The business of film is constantly one of assessing and reassessing — and that’s as it should be. Movies may not change, but we do, and so does our capacity to appreciate them.




Though the film is an obvious attempt to recreate the success of Show Boat, but as an original musical for film, this is no cheap cash-in. Far from it. High, Wide and Handsome is a beautifully crafted movie — a rich slice of unusual, and somewhat quirky Americana that just happened to be made by a Russian-born filmmaker. Mamoulian was always a stylist, but of a very particular kind. Oh, he was part and parcel of that celebrated trio of Paramount stylists that consisted of Ernst Lubitsch, Josef von Sternberg, and him. But he was strikingly different in that his style was a blend of heightened stylization and a very personal kind of naturalism. High, Wide and Handsome is quite possibly the most extreme combination of this in the way that there is no clear separation between studio-created scenes and actual exteriors. Part of this may be due to the material, which actually is more the sort of thing one expects from Paramount’s other big name 1930s director, the much maligned (and not unreasonably so) Cecil B. DeMille. High, Wide and Handsome might well be a DeMille picture — but done in Mamoulian terms.




The story is all about a medicine show girl, Sally Wattersonn (Irene Dunne), who — along with her snake-oil (in this case rock-oil) salesman father (Raymond Walburn) and his bogus Indian sidekick (William Frawley) — ends up staying on the farm owned by Peter Cortlandt (Randolph Scott) and his grandmother (Elizabeth Patterson) after their wagon burns. At first, Grandma Cortlandt is resistant to the interlopers, but she thaws pretty quickly. Not surprisingly, a romance blossoms between Sally and Peter. But much of the film concerns the burgeoning Pennsylvania oil business and its run-in with evil railroad tycoon Walt Brennan (Alan Hale), who wants to swallow it up as part of his business empire. In other words, it’s the little guy farmer/oilmen up against big business.




What makes it special — apart from the style of the whole thing — has a great deal to do with the details. Taking Dorothy Lamour out of her faux-exotica films and casting her as shanty-boat torch-song singer was pretty daring at the time, but it mostly pays off. Lamour’s own shaky dramatic skills make her character even more sympathetic. Bringing in Akim Tamiroff for a small showy role as a wealthy cat-loving saloon owner is inspired. (And allows Mamoulian free rein to indulge his penchant for including cats in his movies.) Plus, the period detail is often breathtaking — the lighting for Dunne in her circus performance, for example — and always feels authentic. While it’s undeniable that it feels a little awkward that the male lead doesn’t (can’t) sing, Randolph Scott may well give the best performance of his career in the film.

The Asheville Film Society will screen High, Wide and Handsome Tuesday, Feb. 17, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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