Saturday, September 03, 2016

"Branded" (1950)

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.


  1. Have you ever read the O. Henry story "A Double-Dyed Deceiver"? I can't help wondering if the plot of Branded was based on it. No romance and a totally different ending, but the same exact concept of a fake long-lost son with a distinctive mark on him.

    Oh, and a fun bit of trivia: in my research for my WWII novel, I recently happened upon the fact that Mona Freeman was named queen of the Sophomore Soiree at my dad's alma mater in 1943! It wasn't a co-ed school yet, but she attended as a student's date.

    (I'd recognize the Shane reference on your shirt all right. :))

    1. Elisabeth, nope, I hadn't read that. Thanks for the link! IMDB says that the movie is based on a Max Brand book (published under the name Evan Evans), but I can't find any book by him under either name with the title Branded, so it must have had a different title?

      That's so cool about Mona Freeman having been at your dad's alma mater!

      (And yay! At least someone would.)

    2. The book is called "Montana Rides." (I saw this because I had to look up the plot because I hate being left hanging and I have no idea when I'll be able to see it... ROFL!)

    3. DKoren, thank you! (And you know, I could totally have told you the ending.)(Also, I was going to say you could expect Alan Ladd's character to survive cuz I said I like this one, except haha, I just realized I also am so very fond of This Gun for Hire and The Great Gatsby, so never mind.)

    4. (Whenever anyone posts a spoiler-free review, or leaves a movie plot hanging, the first thing I do is google it and read the full plot. Unless it's something I really don't care about. It's like how I hate mystery books! I think this falls in that category! ROFL!)

    5. (That's so funny, because you're the one that has scolded me in the past for reading spoilage! This MUST be tied to the mystery thing, as I kind of don't care about spoilage one way or another unless it's a particular kind of film where there's a huge twist at the end, and then I don't want to know.)

    6. (I think it's just a matter of when the movie was made. I don't mind spoilage on older movies, but I don't want to hear ANYTHING on new movies, such as Rogue One, Star Wars VIII, etc.)

    7. (OH! Okay, I can wrap my head around that. That does make sense.)

  2. Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaappy birthday, Alan Ladd!! You're Hamlette's favorite actor right now--did you know that? (Yeah, I think you knew that ;-) ) I hope you have a great birthday with lots of cake. And coffee. Because coffee is Important.

    (I'm in a silly mood tonight, for some reason . . . hope you don't mind . . . :-) )

    1. Jessica, how silly you are :-) I don't mind! (But he's actually my 2nd-favorite actor -- the #1 spot still goes to John Wayne...)

    2. *gasps in horror* HOW could I forget John Wayne?? Dear, dear, dear . . .

      Oh, well. At least I was right about him being pretty high up on your list ;-)

    3. Jessica, lol. I haven't talked nearly as much about John Wayne of late as I have about Alan Ladd, being that I'm twitterpated over Ladd. Until my blogathon announcement yesterday, that is.

  3. Sounds really good! I would like to see this one.

    Ask my mom about cholla! You do NOT want to run into it. We always steer well clear of it when out hiking. At least it's a very distinctive cactus.

    I think Mona Freeman much be better in Westerns. I didn't like her much in "Battle Cry" but did like her in "Streets of Laredo." Hm.

    Love that second screenshot in particular. Really nice.

    1. DKoren, I would watch this with you any time :-)

      I saw a blog post about someone who went hiking and got like twenty of them stuck to their clothes. It was funny, but horrifying.

      I still haven't seen Streets of Laredo. Sigh.

      That second shot is from the first time we see Choya's face. I noticed on this last viewing just how often they shoot him with his back to the camera or looking over his shoulder -- they really emphasize that, but subtly.

  4. I SO enjoyed this post, Hamlette. You have a breezy writing style that is infectious. The wonderful screen caps don't hurt either :-) I'm glad you did this film justice, because it is really one of the top Ladd westerns -- maybe not quite up there with SHANE, but up there.

    By the way, at a film festival last month I saw a very early Gary Cooper film called THE TEXAN, whose plot was very close to that of BRANDED. I enjoyed it a lot! But I couldn't help but think about Alan's film while I was watching.

    YES about Ladd getting shirtless or beat up, or both, in so many of his films. Yowza. I watched SALTY O'ROURKE the other day, on, and was shocked that Alan did not have a shirtless scene :-/ He teased by starting to remove articles of clothing a couple of times but that's about it. Despite the print not being great that film is pretty darn good -- I recommend it. Cheers from another Laddie fan!

    1. Thanks, Jocelyn! I'm glad you enjoyed it :-) I had my usual hard time screencapping this that I have with every Alan Ladd movie lately -- I want to capture every single moment where he looks good. Which is kind of a lot, since he rarely looks anything but!

      Anyway, I've woefully neglected Gary Cooper movies, I'm afraid. I liked him lot as a teen, then didn't like him for like a decade, then saw him in Ball of Fire and started liking him again, but I have a lot of catching up to do. I'll keep an eye out for The Texan to see if I'm reminded of this as well!

      And yeah, Alan and his shirtless scenes. I was wondering, during this, what he was thinking as he started to basically do a little striptease for the camera, first unbuttoning the shirt, then leaving it tucked in and just a little gappy while he unbuttoned his cuffs, then finally pulling it all the way off. Did he ever feel exploited? Was he perfectly comfortable whipping his shirt off in every single film? My sense of him is that he was quiet and shy, so was that part of his career he disliked? Or was he really proud of his body and happy to show it off? He obviously worked hard for many years to stay in such good shape, and then he just kind of let it go, and I know that coincided with his drinking and all, but part of me thinks, "Maybe he just got sick of shirtless scenes and decided this was how to get out of doing them."

      Okay, that was a lot of rambling. I haven't seen Salty O'Rourke yet, but I'm due for a new-to-me Ladd film, so maybe I'll start it this evening! We'll see.

    2. About Alan's feelings about his shirtless scenes -- of course it's impossible to say, but fun to speculate ;-) I can believe he was OK with them in general once he got used to doing it. Being a swimmer and all he was probably proud of his body. When he started to lose his looks that probably was very stressful for him-- and turned into a vicious cycle. (Ironically he had lost weight and started to look a bit better right before his last film). I think he was probably more frustrated about some of the bad parts or bad movies he was forced to make, and felt exploited that way. Or, like you suggested, maybe he felt that the shirtless scenes were part of the exploitation. I don't get that vibe tho, and don't feel bad enjoying the scenery ;-) !!

      Re Gary Cooper --man was he HOT in his younger days. I did enjoy those early films of his. But I can't say I'm a huge fan. Of course, that might be in my future ;-) I need to see BALL OF FIRE; I've heard good things about it and Barbara Stanwyck is good in just about everything.

    3. Jocelyn, yes -- fun to speculate. Being a writer, I have a tendency to sort of try to get into the heads of characters, or imagine what other people might be thinking as they act in a film or write a book, even. You're so right that, being a competitive swimmer, he was going to be used to wandering around in nothing but swimming trunks in front of strangers.

      I haven't seen his last film, and don't really want to, as everything I have heard and read about it says that I would hate it. But I'm happy to hear he was taking better care of himself physically.

      I don't feel bad enjoying the scenery either ;-) I've never gotten a "weird" or "bad" vibe from Alan and his shirtless scenes, his characters just naturally get themselves in these situations where shirtlessness is required, somehow.

      Honestly, I haven't seen Gary Cooper all that young. "Ball of Fire" is probably the earliest of his films I've seen, and I actually watched it originally to see Dana Andrews and Barbara Stanwyck in something together. But the whole thing is just an adorable bundle of silliness -- best retelling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves I've seen!

  5. Excellent write-up of what for me is Ladd's second best duster. A great looking western with a story, fine cast and top flight direction. What is not to like here?


    1. Thanks, Gord! This has actually become my favorite Alan Ladd film so far. Shane is better, but I love Branded just a bit more.


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