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.