Happy birthday, Alan Ladd! To celebrate the day, I'm going to review one of my favorite of Ladd's films: Branded (1950). (I'm also wearing my only Ladd-related t-shirt in his honor. It says "Grafton's Mercantile Co. Sundries & Saloon" on it, and pretty much no one I run into is going to know that it's a reference to Shane, but that matters not. I know.)
Branded is one of those thinky westerns. Not a bang-bang-shoot-'em-up western, but one that's more of a character-driven drama that happens to take place out west. It's kind of about swindlers, but not totally. It's kind of about mistaken identity, but not totally. It's a little hard to define, except that it is definitely about a man's search for acceptance and belonging.
The movie has two parts -- the first concerns the main character's fall, and the second shows how he tries to atone for what he's done. And the ending is all about forgiveness and acceptance, not about having a big showdown and killing off all the villains. No wonder it fills me with joy, huh?
Also, in case you're curious, no, this has nothing whatsoever to do with the Chuck Connors TV series called Branded (1965-66). Not related in the least. (Though Mona Freeman, who stars here as Ruth Lavery, did appear in an episode of the TV show, but as a totally different character.)
So... on to the story!
Choya (Alan Ladd) is a Bad Guy. When we meet up with him in the first scene, he's using an innocent old man as a shield to escape the wrath of a bunch of townspeople.
He killed a townsperson (in self-defense, they're careful to point out), so now the whole town is out to get him. But he's clever and resourceful and quick-thinking, and is soon beyond the reach of the law. However, he's not beyond the reach of other Bad Guys.
Two hombres named Leffingwell (Robert Keith) and Tattoo (John Berkes) find him and convince him that they have the greatest get-rich-quick scheme of all time. Leffingwell knows about this wealthy ranching family whose only son was kidnapped twenty years earlier and never found. The son had a very distinctive birthmark on his shoulder. Choya looks enough like the family that he could conceivably be that son, so all he has to do is get that birthmark tattooed on his shoulder, convince the family he's their lost son, and then make off with lots of money. Which, of course, Leffingwell expects a good cut of for masterminding the whole thing.
Choya's skeptical at first, but finally agrees to go along with it. But he insists on going to the family on his own and running this con game his own way. Leffingwell doesn't like being left out of everything, but doesn't have much choice.
Choya meets up with some of the cowhands on the ranch, acts all tough and mean, and somehow wrangles himself a job. He goes on being antagonistic, like a guy with a grudge against the whole world.
He does soften up a little around Ruth Lavery, the boss man's daughter, but he growls at everyone else. And then he deliberately gets all dirty trying to break in a horse, which means he has to take off his shirt to clean up, thereby revealing his "birthmark." And then he gets into a big fight with Mr. Lavery (Charles Bickford), before anyone notices the "birthmark," but they do see it eventually.
I will pause here a moment to mention that poor Alan Ladd was forever having to take off his shirt in movies. And forever having to get beaten up. I almost suspect there was someone at the studio keeping a tally -- every Alan Ladd movie has to have either the Obligatory Shirtless Scene or the Obligatory Beating. In some, like Branded, we get both, just for good measure. I've watched 14 of his films since February, and I've started wondering at the beginning of each new one just how they're going to work a shirtless scene and a fight scene into it. The only one I've seen so far that doesn't have either one is And Now Tomorrow (1944). I'm sure this trend says a lot about movie studios in the '40s and '50s (Alan Ladd is trim and muscular -- we must show off his body!), audiences then (we want to see our hero suffer! While shirtless!), and myself (Must comfort and protect my Alan from those meanies!), but anyway, back to the story.
After they decide that he's their son, Choya acts like he wants nothing to do with the Laverys, making them really really really want him to accept them as family. It's quite genius -- they have no reason to suspect he's conning them because he insists he doesn't want to believe he's the long-lost Lavery heir.
No sooner does he have them convinced, by letting them convince him, than he starts to have second thoughts about this whole affair. Mrs. Lavery (Selena Royle), a fragile and bewildered woman, dotes so on him that he can't help but start feeling guilty about all his lies. Which is what makes casting Ladd such a good move, as he does "guilty and repentant" looks so effectively.
Choya knows he's falling in love with Ruth Lavery, but he can't act on it because she believes he's her brother. He tries to keep up the deception, but eventually, he realizes how wrong it all is.
He confesses to Ruth, then leaves, vowing he'll find the real Lavery boy and return him to the family to make up for all the pain he's caused by tricking them. His partner-in-crime Leffingwell isn't at all pleased about this, as you can imagine. The rest of the film is about Choya's quest to atone for his misdeeds by finding the man he was impersonating (Peter Hansen), who grew up in Mexico believing he was the son of a bandit chieftain (Joseph Calleia).
And I won't spoil any more of the film, because if you like classy, thought-provoking westerns with lots of character development and deep moral and emotional questions, you need to watch this yourself.
The name Choya, of course, is an Americanization of the Spanish word cholla, which is a kind of cactus. It's the perfect name for this character -- he is so prickly and hard to eradicate, you expect him to sprout actual spines at any moment. And yet, when treated well, he blooms. Also, it seems that cholla plants will attach themselves to you and refuse to let go -- at least, according to my extremely cursory internet research. And Choya does the same. Once he's attached to the Lavery family, he will not let go of them, even if it means trading his life for their real son's while returning him to his rightful parents.
One of the things I like best about Branded is their handling of Ruth Lavery. She could have been clingy and annoying. She could have been naive and heedless. She could have been bold and tempting. Those seem to be the cliches that female love interests in westerns fall into all too often.
But Ruth Lavery is much more realistic that that. She really feels like a woman who has grown up on a ranch, used to lots of independence and responsibility. She's authoritative and intelligent, but also kind and affectionate. I would like to be her friend.
Doesn't hurt that Mona Freeman has a fresh, spunky prettiness that contrasted really nicely with the bitter toughness Alan Ladd was projecting.
Anyway, happy birthday again, dear Alan. If you want to drink coffee at my chuckwagon, I promise not to point any rifles at you.