It's Olivia de Havilland's 100th birthday today! And unlike most of the people whose birthdays I celebrate here... Olivia de Havilland is still alive! Isn't that amazing? Happy birthday, Ms. de Havilland!
In her honor, Phyllis Loves Classic Movies and In the Good Old Days of Hollywood are hosting a birthday blogathon dedicated to her all weekend long! You can find links to the other entries here. For this event, I am reviewing the little-known western The Proud Rebel (1958). I call it a western, but it takes place in Aberdeen, Illinois, and there aren't really any cowboys in it. Some sheepherders and farmers, but that's it. Still, it has the feel of a western to it, and generally is classified as such.
John Chandler (Alan Ladd), his son David (David Ladd), and their dog Lance arrive in Aberdeen looking for Doctor Davis (Cecil Kellaway, who was the doctor in And Now Tomorrow with Alan Ladd too). They explain that David can't talk. For a year, since having a shock, he has been mute, communicating through sign language and grunting noises. The doctor recommends they seek out a man in Minnesota, Dr. Eli Strauss, who has had some success with similar cases.
But before the Chandlers can leave for Minnesota, John has a run-in with some local nasties, Harry Burleigh (Dean Jagger) and his sons Jeb and Tom (Harry Dean Stanton and Tom Pittman). The Burleighs own a big sheep ranch, and they take a shine to the Chandler's dog, who is wonderful at herding sheep. So they try to steal him, but when John catches them at it, they beat him up, claim he was drunk, and try to get him thrown in jail. The meanies!
But a woman farmer named Linnett Moore (Olivia de Havilland) feels sorry for David, so she offers to pay his father's fine if he will work off the debt on her farm. The judge agrees, and so the Chandlers ride out to Linnett's farm. It's dry, dusty, run down. But has good possibilities. Linnett tells them she didn't get him out of jail as an act of charity. She has a 200-acre farm she runs all by herself, and she can't really handle it. Her barn's in bad repair, her fences need mending, she has stock to tend, fields to plow, and so on. Chandler tells her simply, "I know about farming, ma'am."
So they get to work, chopping wood, repairing the barn, pitching hay, and so on. David has a rip-roaring good time sliding down haystacks and taking cows to pasture while his father plows.
Linnett dotes on David, but has a harder time connecting to John. They always seem to end up quarreling, though in a friendly way. But before you know it, they're all sharing meals in her kitchen.
But guess who Linnett's neighbors are? Those mean, nasty, low-down Burleighs. They want her farm, and they'll use any underhanded means necessary to force her off it, including wrecking her fences, driving their sheep into her crops, and even burning down the barn John had just finished repairing.
Still, the Chandlers and Linnett keep right on farming until Dr. Davis arrives with a letter from Dr. Strauss in Minnesota that says he thinks he could help David. But the Chandlers will need three hundred dollars for the trip up there, and they'll need to leave within a week. John tries to raise the money by selling his horse and saddle, and Dr. Davis offers to loan him some. But of course, there's only one way to raise that much cash quick: he could sell Lance, but would break David's heart in the process.
(The next two paragraphs contain SPOILERS.)
While The Proud Rebel is a relatively simple, straight-forward story, it plumbs some intriguing depths. Should a father have the right to sell his son's beloved dog just for the chance of restoring the boy's hearing? I think modern films would say that no! That boy's feelings for a dog must surely trump his father's desire to help him speak again, right? But what about when that boy grows up? The dog won't live forever, but the boy might have to live his whole life mute because his father couldn't raise the money for an operation. It's such a meaty, difficult problem, and I think the film handles it well. Particularly because John is a loving, gentle father who only wants the best for his son -- he's not laying down the law and being a peremptory authority figure here. He does what he believes is the right thing for his son even though it might cause the boy to hate him. John Chandler understands that doing what is right often means doing what is hard. And later, when he realizes that he has the opportunity to get David's dog back, he risks his life to do so, walking straight into a trap that he knows is a trap to keep his promise to his son.
And then there's Linnett. Never married, she's hung onto the farm she loves and worked harder than most of us today can imagine, trying to make a living and keep her land away from the bullies next door. Her life must look a little hopeless before the Chandlers come. But when John decides to leave with David to see out the doctor in Minnesota, she supports his decision, even though it will mean losing these two people she has grown to care so much for, who have brought hope and joy to her lonely life. Even though she argues with John plenty over whether he should sell the dog, she accepts that this is his decision to make and doesn't try any kind of underhanded trickery to stop him. She's a straight arrow, Linnett Moore, and not a caricature of a strong woman, but a truly sturdy one.
(END of SPOILERS.)
Olivia de Havilland's performance here is charming. I'm so used to her playing ladylike, genteel characters like Melanie Wilkes or Maid Marian, and seeing her as the rough-edged Linnett Moore is a treat for me.
I love how she moves, walking and sitting as if, under her skirts, she's wearing trousers. I'm surprised she doesn't wear them, living out on the farm alone like she did before the Chandler's came into her life. They'd be so much easier to farm in than that big skirt, I would think. But maybe that's the point -- she's just feminine enough to want the constant reminder that she's a woman doing a man's job, not a man. She never gave up hoping that someday, somehow, she'd meet a man who would love her, want to marry her. Who would see her strong heart instead of her work-roughened hands.
When we first meet Linnett, she's nice, but cynical. Over the course of the film, hers is the biggest character arc, as she learns to like the Chandlers, then to trust them, and finally to love them. De Havilland plays it beautifully, never letting Linnett lose her strength, but slowly letting her relax and soften little by little, as she learns to hope again.
The first time I watched this, I admit I spent more time mourning how much Alan Ladd had aged in the five years since Shane than paying attention to his performance. Sure, his character is supposed to look weary and worn down by his troubles, but he looks a decade older than his forty-five years, to me. In six more years, he'd be dead. That made me very sad, and I found the whole movie a sad experience as a result.
This time through, I knew what to expect, and could focus on his acting instead. And I was so impressed by how he balanced dignity and despair, often in the same moment. This was a man who'd been rich and happy, but who'd lost his home and wife, not to mention his money, during the war, and spent the next year hearing time and again that his son would never speak again. He's lost almost everything -- his son is all he has left, and his love for that boy is evident in every scene they share.
It helps, of course, that David Chandler is played by David Ladd, who has a sunny smile and pulls off all the sign language nicely. For me, the best part of casting Alan Ladd's own son David as his son here is how naturally they behave together. There's something different in how a parent touches their child than how even a good friend of the family or a grandparent does. A parent is more proprietary, if that makes sense. A non-parent will always be a little hesitant, touching carefully. A parent touches them almost unconsciously, as though they have a perfect right to handle their child because, well, they do, and that's practically impossible to imitate.
Watching the two of them here, you can see that Ladd was an affectionate, kind father -- David's acting overall is fine for a child actor, but not nuanced or skilled enough to fake the level of confident love he displays for his father.
And then there's Dean Jagger, playing a lousy, cheating jerk. Grrrrrrrrr, I despise his character, Harry Burleigh. Which is hard on me, because I'm so used to loving him as General Waverley in White Christmas. Hmph.
Happily, I'm not watching this movie for Dean Jagger :-)
You can watch this for free here if you have Amazon Prime or Amazon Video. Or you can watch it here or here on YouTube. It's in the public domain, so you can also buy in on DVD very cheaply, though of course, the quality varies. I have this version, which is what I got my screencaps from. If you've seen a different edition that has better picture quality, please let me know!
This is my thirteenth and final entry for the Period Drama Challenge as well. That challenge ends tomorrow, and it has been such fun! Thank you so much for hosting it again, Miss Laurie! I look forward to doing one final recap post for it soon. And look! I squeaked one last Alan Ladd film in for it :-) I don't have much to say about the costumes for this film -- they're perfectly fine, but nothing exciting. Still, here's one of Linnett in her prettiest dress and shawl:
Is this movie family friendly? Yes, it definitely is. Nary a cuss word. Not so much as one kiss, though there's a little innuendo about Linnett having such a handsome man working on her ranch. But he clearly is occupying a completely different building from her, and of course, David is always there, so the audience knows no one's getting into any hanky-panky. There's a little violence, including a gunfight at the end that involves some deaths, but almost no blood is shown. The barn burning might be too scary for young children, though.