The Riled West

A little-seen but integral part of the Jacques Tourneur universe, 1956’s GREAT DAY IN THE MORNING, one of the weirdest westerns to come out of Hollywood, makes its Blu-Ray debut, courtesy of The Warner Archive Collection.

Filmed as RKO was accelerating its rapid demise (the studio would be smoldering in the Rosebud fire by the following year), GREAT DAY carries all of the director’s trademark themes:  ambivalent looks-are-deceiving “heroes,” the bridge between sexuality and death, the punishment of trust…; in short, the evil that men (and women) do.

Into a society of degenerates (aka, early Civil War Denver, Colorado), rides disgraced Southerner Owen Pentecost.  Saved from an Indian attack (probably provoked), the outcast son of Dixie is offered a safe passage into town by working as an additional bodyguard for tough merchant Ann Merry Alaine.  It’s not an easy trip, as her other protectors comprise a gang of lowlifes who despise all things Southern.

And here’s the rub.  Zeff, leader of the deviant loudmouths, is a character western fans know all too well.  He’s even played to the hilt by renowned heavy Leo Gordon.  Nevertheless the typical trademarks of such vermin – jealousy, pure sociopathic tendencies, greed – are replaced by an aversion to the South due to their persecution of African-Americans, their cracker vehement adhesion to slavery.  Zeff, in short, considers it an honor to spit on white trash that supports owning people they can’t afford to buy (to work land they don’t have) – shackled, suffering separated families who are better in every way than their persecutors.  Why is this thug saying these things?  We’re supposed to NOT like him.  His cohorts are no different.  Like Pentecost, the few other Southerners in Denver are, not surprisingly, shunned and bastardized as well.  But they’re no innocents either.  They harbor ambitions to steal gold for their cause – and kill anyone who stands in their way.

Pentecost, on the surface, appears conflicted, but he’s actually in his element – thriving in a corrupt, festering growing community where he can do what he does best, playing both sides.  His attraction to the beautiful Ann is one-sided; she’s practically frigid – thawed only by the thought of accumulating more power.  Adding to the toxicity is Kirby, a rock-jaw Union officer who is smitten by her, but can never dishonor himself enough to make a permanent impression.  Then there’s Gary, an orphaned teen, adopted by Pentecost – not out of affection, but because he secretly killed the boy’s father.  Secrets don’t stay buried long in GREAT DAY‘s Denver, their holders do.  Soon, the once-adoring Gary learns to hate Pentecost, and seek revenge.

All of this is overseen with glee by the town’s manipulative “boss,” the psychopathic Jumbo Means (his size complements his name, along with his penchant for collecting elephant art), who buys everything and everyone, and enjoys pitting factions against one another.  He sides with the Union, only because it seems the easier route to become a war profiteer.  Pentecost, meanwhile, leans toward the band of his “home boy” rebels (whom he plans to screw out of the gold smuggled to the Confederacy).

Indeed, the only reputable and admirable character in the show is Boston, the town’s leading whore.  The contradictory fact that the most obvious immoral person is also Denver’s most moral, takes its toll.  Even if this wasn’t a movie made in 1956, you can well imagine what fate awaits her.

Speaking of contradictory, a key word in Tourneur’s celluloid lexicon, GREAT DAY IN THE MORNING, with its cynical title, looks gorgeous in the Technicolor and SuperScope Silverton, Colorado location cinematography of William E. Snyder.  The script by Lesser Samuels (from Robert Hardy Andrews’ novel) is, as indicated, infuriating, as some of the pic’s highest verbal valiant patriotism comes from the mouths of human pigs.  A typical era score by Leith Stevens compliments the proceedings.

The cast, led by a recently A-list upgraded Robert Stack is aces.  Stack, who won praise for his role as pilot on the verge of a nervous breakdown in 1954’s The High and the Mighty, followed in 1955 with a great turn as a faux scumbag in Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo.  In GREAT DAY, he’s the real deal (and later that year he would give another outstanding performance in Sirk’s Written on the Wind).  Supporting Stack is female lead Virginia Mayo (Ann), Ruth Roman (Boston), Raymond Burr (Jumbo) Alex Nichol (Kirby), Donald MacDonald (Gary), plus Regis Toomey, Carleton Young, Peter Whitney, William Phipps, Burt Mustin, and such genre regulars as Lane Chandler, Pierce Lyden, Kermit Maynard, Frank Mills, Buddy Roosevelt, and Syd Saylor, .

The Warner Archive Blu-Ray of GREAT DAY IN THE MORNING is sumptuous to the max.  I mean, it looks spectacular in 1080p High Definition.  Furthermore, there’s the added supplemental perk of four Jacques Tourneur MGM shorts from his salad days (The Ship that Died, Strange Glory, The Face Behind the Mask and The Magic Alphabet).

Truly, a western that’s hard to place, but one that’s fun to try, GREAT DAY IN THE MORNING is a strange, but thoroughly engrossing journey into the darker side of humanity.

GREAT DAY IN THE MORNING. Color. Widescreen [2.0:1; 1080p High Definition] 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Entertainment.  CAT # 1000750095SRP: $21.95.

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