Living in Tucson has some benefits for the classic movie fan. Especially if the classic movie fan enjoys westerns. Old Tucson Studios is still relatively the same as it was in the 1950s and 1960s when it was used in Hollywood productions. This past weekend, the studio held a reunion of all the former stuntmen and extras who worked at Old Tucson. It was a fun event and featured performers dating from the 1940s to the 2000s. One of the stuntmen who attended, worked on the set of Rio Bravo (1959). I happened to watch Rio Bravo for the first time over the weekend. It was great to have been out at Old Tucson and then see a lot of the same buildings in the film.
One of the reasons why a lot of the buildings featured in the film look so familiar is because Howard Hawks had workers add four new blocks to the main street so that the set would not look so similar to other films shot there. One of the previous films shot at Old Tucson was 3:10 to Yuma (1957). Hawks hated the film. He didn’t think it was believable. He and John Wayne also felt the same way about High Noon (1952). It was as a response to these films that Hawks developed the idea for Rio Bravo. In fact, Hawks thought the idea of a loner hero in need of help from others, including a recovering alcoholic and young gunslinger was so good that he made two other films using the same theme. Wayne starred as the good guy in need of help in El Dorado (1966) and Rio Lobo (1970), Hawks’ last film.
Rio Bravo was the first in the Hawks-Wayne series shot at Old Tucson. It’s a solid effort all the way around, although I have to admit that I prefer Robert Mitchum in the role of a drunk in El Dorado to Dean Martin’s Dude here. Still, the performances are good and the film is well shot and the story solid.
Wayne is everything we associate with his image. He’s big, strong, the good guy, and embarrassed in romantic situations. This is where the film is so good. Angie Dickinson plays the role of Feathers, a variation of the stock bar maid character in westerns. She had appeared in a few film and television roles, but it wasn’t until Rio Bravo that she broke out. She would not go on to have the success of other Hawks finds, like Lauren Bacall, but she does great here as the perfect contrast to Wayne. She’s modern in both dress and manners. She downs shots of whiskey, she refuses to be put in her place, and she’s willing to speak her mind. All of this is played off the image audiences have of Wayne.
Hawks originally wanted Montgomery Clift for the role of the recovering alcoholic Dude. Instead of getting a re-teaming of the Red River (1948) trio, Dean Martin got the role. Martin never struck me as a great actor, but Hawks gets the most out of him here. Of course he’s at his best when he’s singing “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me” with Ricky Nelson. Nelson does well in his small role, but he’s pretty much thrown in to be eye-candy for the teenagers in the audience who might not have enjoyed Martin or the fatherly Wayne.
To briefly recap the story, Wayne arrests a man for murder. The man’s brother will do whatever he can to get the killer out of jail. So for two and a half hours, Wayne, Walter Brennan (who plays a cripple), Martin, and at times Nelson, Dickinson and Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez (who plays the proprietor of the town hotel) have to stave off a hoard of bad guys. There’s a shoot out at the end and dynamite is used to enhance the action.
Although the above paragraph might make the film sound boring or standard for a western, you must realize that there are so few stories left to be told about the Old West. It’s in the small variations, such as Feathers being more of a modern woman, and the acting, with Wayne bringing his presence, that make Rio Bravo such an enjoyable film to watch.