Saturday, May 01, 2010

Mountain Man in the Middle: Arthur Hunnicutt

He's the craggy cowboy-faced feller who somehow grounds every film he's in--no matter how peripheral the character--with pioneer-style grace and droll aplomb. A Walter Brennan without the fogey sass and twice the steely-eyed mellow. He's just an actor who found a niche playing pioneer-types far older than he actually was, but when he's onscreen you forget you're watching a dude who dropped out of college and joined a theater troupe in Martha's Vineyard before a starring role on Broadway in a hit production of Tobacco Road brought him to Hollywood and low-key fame as a low-key stalwart in westerns. But he's so authentic and natural, he makes whatever he's in take on a fly-on-the-wall documentary air. He's Arthur Hunnicutt, and he doesn't even need our praise. Hell, if he ever got some he'd probably have to quit, he just wouldn't know what to do with it! 

One of his finest roles comes in the sometimes-shown on TCM but criminally-unavailable on DVD-- and a must-burn for Howard Hawksians--THE BIG SKY (1952, above), a poetic, ramshackle film about fur traders who love, laugh, drink, sing, swap tall tales, and occasionally shoot bad guys up in the Pacific Northwest. Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin are the handsomer leads, but it's Hunnicutt who makes it all work with his casual narration. 

Cinema blogger par excellence Ed Howard notes that the central performances of Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin (in the juvenile understudy role Ricky Martin would play in RIO BRAVO) are only so-so (and weren't Hawks' first choices). But that the supporting characters are awesome:
Hunnicutt is especially great in the Walter Brennan-type old coot role. Zeb's outrageous tall tales and deadpan humor — reminiscent of the Squint character from Frank King's great newspaper comic strip Gasoline Alley — are consistently funny, especially his anecdote about sewing a friend's severed ear on backwards, so that whenever he heard something thereafter, he always turned in the wrong direction. (Only the Cinema 3/27/09)

Hunnicutt was actually nominated for best supporting actor Oscar for SKY, but he didn't win. In the meantime, he did a lot of western TV shows. But it's three movies in particular which I'll focus on, because they're all classics, and two aren't on DVD and that makes me mighty ornery. The second I'll mention is on DVD, another Hawks' pic, EL DORADO (1966, above). Hunnicutt is often overlooked when it comes to talking about EL DORADO, and that's probably because John Wayne, Robert Mitchum AND a young James Caan co-star. Ain't much room left on the marquee, 'specially if you add Ed Asner.

But while Mitchum, Wayne and Caan fill the spotlight, Hunnicutt hangs back and steals the show--again by barely entering into it til round halfway down the clock, blowin' on his trusty bugle as a farewell to Cole Thornton since he "couldn't let one of General Hood's cavalry men leave without blowing goodbye". He's 'Bull,' the deputy of drunken sheriff Mitchum, and he blows on his trusty bugle to signal danger (or "Marchin' through Georgia" shooting at church bells to de-perch tower snipers). As in THE BIG SKY, he's the kind of feller who seems too authentic to worry about actual acting; he just brings a wit dry and sharp enough to split a hair'n and a deadpan delivery method too smart to be a southern drawl, but too slow to be much else - and the whole movie breathes bigger, the way colors suddenly become brighter and more focused about halfway through a good meal when you're super hungry and tired. His is the voice of a man who's spent time enough alone in the wilderness and facing dangers both within and without that he no longer itches to go find himself, and so he has nothin' much left to prove 'sept he's lived a fair and colorful life and has a jug full of semi-true tales to tell for it. Such a man wa

THE LUSTY MEN, Nicholas Ray's underseen film from 1952, is a very Hawks-style immersion in rodeo culture, and is actually the earliest film on this list, though it seems the most modern. (the pic up top is from LUSTY, and you can see how much younger Hunnicutt looks without the facial hair). In true and beloved Nicholas Ray fashion, the film places enough importance on every minor detail that you can't be sure what is  meant to be 'foreshadowing' or just superfluous 'atmosphere' the way you can with more careless directors, who use ominous music cues to show you which of Chekov's guns are going to go off in the third. We build with great leisurely poetry the scene of intelligent good people forming an alliance based around a chance to make money rodeo-ing. When Hunnicutt appears, as he usually does, a few reels into the film, once they finally get to the rodeo, you breathe a sigh of relief; if Hunnicutt's there, you know the rodeo people will be three-dimensional good folks, regular people but not cliches. Each one will be vividly etched in the style that means, as with Hawks, each actor gets a lot of input in forming their characters; they overflow the pages of the script without wasting a single extra breath.  And through it all, Hunnicutt is our guide, like your first friend ever made within a new group of imposing strangers, the one who first makes you feel comfortable, long as you don't mind listening to his colorful tales, which are hilarious but which near everyone else in the rodeo circuit has heard already, a few times, not that they don't love him, and he'll probably end up borrowing money, but he always has a dram on the hip when you need it most. And here, with him is his cool niece or whatever relation she is, a kind of Gloria Jean to his WC Fields, a sign of his goodness in that she seems neither neglected nor misused but happy, confident and savvy yet pure. The role of the 'pappy'-style colorful sidekick to a tall gunfighter like Wayne was clearly more Walter Brennan's gig, but when you wanted the stealth third man, the 'mountain man' in the middle, a man who'd compliment Mitchum the way Brennan complimented Wayne, a man to make it all seem suddenly more real and more relaxing at the same time, a man to connect the characters and audience and earth together with an alchemical bugle blow and a funny tale about a man who shot is ear off, there was no one better than Arthur Hunnicutt.

For speculation on why the Lusty Men ain't on DVD, dig my 2008 piece o' passionate masculine brilliance, Lusty Men and Cockfighter.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great celebration of a consistently enjoyable and overlooked actor, Erich. Obviously, I love the two Hawks films mentioned here. There's some risk of Hunnicutt being overlooked in comparison to Walter Brennan in similar roles for Hawks, but Hunnicutt definitely brings his own persona and his own sensibility to these parts. I think you pinpoint the difference very well: Hunnicutt has more of a laidback, authentic feel, while Brennan is of course very over-the-top and presents a stylized kind of old coot crankiness.

    I haven't seen the Ray film you mention, but it sounds great as well.


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