If you’ve been following my blog since last year, you’ll know that The Proud Rebel is one of my favourite Alan films. I love it so much that I included it in my Top 15 Classic Film Discoveries of 2018, and so I could not miss the chance to write about it for my blogathon.
When people think of Alan’s great Western performance they think of Shane, which is fair, because that film is pretty much Alan’s shining moment. He deserved an Oscar for his performance. Snub, cough, snub. But The Proud Rebel, for me, is a return to that splendid form on our man’s part. This film is like the flipped image of Shane. Instead of Alan playing a complete loner, he plays a man who is trying with all his power, with utter force of will, to restore to his son the part of himself that can help define his identity: his voice. During this quest, he realises that his past cannot be buried, and that he can look to the future without feeling guilty. That he can love again, love a wonderful, brave woman, who understands deprivation and hardship as keenly as he does.
By 1958, Alan’s career had shifted dramatically. He was no longer considered the superstar he had been five years before when he had starred in Shane. But that did not mean his talent had dimmed any. In fact, he had matured as an actor, and that stoicism for which he had become so associated with throughout his career, had become something very powerful, something that showed the burden that masculine expectations can be, and almost always , are. In his role as John Chandler, Alan shows that men, especially in the era in which the film is set, were expected to feel no tender emotion, not even for their own flesh and blood. John is a man who is probably suffering from PTSD due to his experiences during the Civil War and the traumatic death of his wife. An event that has directly led to his son’s protracted muteness.
The perfect match to this is Linnett Moore, played by Olivia de Havilland. Linnett is a woman alone, who is trying to hold onto her ancestral land in the face of both sexist discrimination and expansionist, monopoly pressure. When she and John find each other, it is as if two halves fit together, and both of them realise that not only are they meant to love each other, but that they are meant to restore David’s voice to him.
Alan and Olivia’s chemistry in this film is staggeringly good. In my opinion she and Alan could pretty much have acted opposite a dead haddock and still been fabulous, but when they’re put together, and in a film in which they are both mature, career actors; hoh boy, is that a treat. They play off each other with perfect timing. Not a beat is missed. They know exactly how to round off every scene they share. How to intensify the onscreen presence of their characters’ relationship. When John looks as if he’s about to kiss Linnett in one part of the film, not long after she has found a bonnet and Sunday best frock to wear; I was positively hopping for something to happen. And when it doesn’t, the anticipation is perfectly pitched. There is nothing forced about their interactions. For me, Alan and Olivia are pretty much up there with Alan and Veronica. A bold claim I know, but I think that the pair should have definitely made more than one film together. And I would have adored to see them in a noir.
The story shows the dangers of stereotyping and apathetic laws in the West. This is a common thread throughout Westerns. Think Pale Rider, Johnny Guitar, The Magnificent Seven and High Noon. And like these films, The Proud Rebel puts those who are badly affected by this harsh reality at the centre of the story. Michael Curtiz is careful in his direction to show the attitudes of the townspeople at John’s trial after he is wrongfully accused of assaulting another man without cause. The judge is disinterested in the fact that the son of a notoriously brutal rancher is in fact the one who incited the fight. And the townspeople are loath to go against someone with that much power. Therefore it’s the classic story of the underdog, or underdogs in this case because both John and Linnett have to fight the system, against the odds. But there’s nothing cliched about the manner in which the film explores these themes. The happy ending is very hard won, and our heroes are very nearly beaten, but their victory is one of my favourites in Westerns.
The supporting cast gives wonderful performances as well, especially Dean Jagger, Cecil Kellaway (a countryman of mine), and baby Dean Stanton. However, as critical notices of the time would show, David Ladd was the standout. Not only is he the very picture of his father in the film, but he is also incredibly mature and sensitive in his portrayal of a little boy affected so badly by loss and mental strain that he cannot be like other children, that he takes on all the responsibilities and actions of an adult. Olivia de Havilland noted Alan’s protectiveness over his son during the making of the film, “…throughout the picture he was very concerned about the boy. Because Michael Curtiz could be quite harsh with people, Alan was afraid that would be rough on David…”. Thankfully, everyone making the film saw how exceptional David’s performance was.
Olivia de Havilland and Alan forged a good friendship during the making of the film. For the rest of Alan’s life, the de Havillands and the Ladds would send each other Christmas cards, entertain each other at parties, and David would even seek Olivia out on his honeymoon in Paris so she could meet his young wife, Cheryl. According to biographer Beverly Linet, even Sue Carol, who had been cold to all of Alan’s other female costars, would make a special effort with Alan’s one time leading lady. Olivia made some very keen and truthful observations about Alan after working with him, saying that “Alan very much wanted to a good actor–and he was. But he needed the reassurance of someone who had faith in him as a performer…One day, I can’t remember exactly why, but I felt he needed reassurance–I said something that had been on my mind since we began working together. ‘Alan,’ I said, ‘I don’t know why they didn’t choose you for Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind. You would have been marvelous in the part.’ You have no idea what that did for him. It was wonderful. He brightened so…”
I think that this lovely connection in real life, and the fact Olivia thought so highly of Alan, and he of her in turn, can be seen in the film. It cheers me to know that Alan made another Western that was worthy of his talents.
Linet, B. Ladd: The Life, The Legend, the Legacy of Alan Ladd. 1979. Arbor House: New York.
This is my final (and rather tardy) contribution for my Alan Blogathon. Please do read all the wonderful articles about this fine actor here.