Saturday, June 28, 2014

Feisty Feathers

When it comes to Howard Hawk's amazing contribution to the Western genre, the first film that comes to mind is Rio Bravo (1959). It has a simple plot, typical Old Tuscon setting and a phenomenal cast of characters. It didn't revolutionize the rapidly tiring genre nor did it shake Hollywood to it's core with out of the box film making. Instead it played to Hawk's chief strength: His ability to tell one hell of a story.

Hawk's is one of those old Hollywood directors that knew no limits. He directed everyone from Joan Crawford to Marilyn Monroe, discovered and molded the talent of Lauren Bacall, felt as comfortable rolling on an old West shootout as well as capturing a song and dance number. The man had a talent for recycling his own material and spinning gold each time. Rio Bravo was no different.

I could write pages on Bravo's cinematography, wax on for hours about Dean Martin's perfect performance or Ricky Nelson's beautifully understated 'Colorado', and I could go on and on about my unswerving devotion to John Wayne and his pigeon toed gait. But for me, the real stand out, the real reason to put in Rio Bravo, comes in a very small, dainty stubborn package and her name is Feathers.

I don't think Hawks ever intended for Feathers to be such a stand out among this group of male heavy weights. I mean, he named her after an accessory that she wears only a couple of times, a brown feather boa. it isn't even memorable or showy. I think that was a direct relation to how Hawks regarded Angie Dickenson's character, as a flowery female accessory, for show and not necessarily for purpose. For Hawks, this movie was all about what it meant to be a man's man... I don't think he ever expected just how strong a woman can be when pitted against this much machismo.

Feathers leads the romantic subplot in Bravo. She comes to town on the stage coach and has to stay over night due to a busted wheel. Her timing couldn't have been worse. John Wayne's Sheriff is between a rock and a hard place keeping a notorious murderer locked in his jail until the U.S. Marshall can arrive. All he has for help is a nagging crippled deputy half off his rocker and a grumpy recovering alcoholic deputy with the shakes. In walks a young woman matching a handbill description of a wanted gambling cheat. What I like about Feathers is that they never come right out and say that she's a "fallen woman" instead she struts into the room  independent and defiant... not to mention chatty.

I love how sassy she is. From the get go, she never once comes across intimidated by the door frame dominating John Wayne. She keeps him on his toes with a never ending stream of talk. At the beginning of their relationship, Wayne follows her up into her room believing that she's cheated at the poker table down below. He asks her about missing cards from the playing deck and she replies that he's just going to have to search her for them. That he would have to remove her blouse and check beneath her skirt. Immediately Wayne is thrown for an embarrassing loop. He stutters and get's flustered. Seeing the Duke loose his footing is wonderful and watching such a small fierce little woman do it is incredibly entertaining.

Angie Dickinson is brilliant in this film. She plays Feathers like a piano hitting every high and every low of the character. She took a girl who could have come across as annoyingly flat and fleshed her out into a believable woman. I like how she builds her attitude from flirty to irritable to mad to enchanted all within in a few lines of dialogue. She's a natural and will not be ignored. I think Feathers became more and more integral to the flow of the story because of how Dickinson chose to play her. Through the course of the movie, you can tell that Hawks saw that spark as well. Occasionally the camera lingers on Feathers after the dialogue has finished allowing for those extra shades to cross her facial expressions. And during her arguments with Wayne, she get's far more screen time than he does. Even when he is responding to her, the camera never strays long and always finds her again.

Feathers doesn't borrow from the Western female stereotypes. She isn't a saloon girl decked out in corsets and flashy colors but neither is she the virtuous homestead woman. She's just a girl who came to town on the stage. She slowly falls for the Sheriff and stays despite his insistence that she leave. She's stubborn and feisty. All in all, she's mind kind of girl.

Feathers: I thought you were never going to say it.
John T. Chance: Say what?
Feathers: That you love me.
John T. Chance: I said I'd arrest you.
Feathers: It means the same thing, you know that.

Bravo is worth watching for a thousand different reasons (including a gratuitous but awesome Nelson/Martin duet), but for me, I watch it for the woman with the feathers...

As for the other reasons to watch Bravo... just look at that handsome Ricky Nelson... need I say more??

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