Films of November : THE OX-BOW INCIDENT (1942)

 

“Now this is the only time my father ever put money into a film project… the only time. Now my Dad starts around the studios, all the studios he had worked for, all the producers he had made money for… and no one wants to do this. I mean he went to Paramount, he went to Warners, he went to Selznick, he went every place… nobody wanted to do it. Well, Duhh. This is 1942 he’s pitching this, the world is at war, race riots are going on in this country, internment camps, I mean this is a dark time; and to try and sell a story about the hanging of innocent men, I mean no wonder no one wanted to do it.  But my father wouldn’t give it up, so he went to Darryl F. Zanuck at Fox, and this was really his last resort, everyone else had turned him down. Now the reason Zanuck was his last resort is they had made about 30 pictures together… a lot of good pictures, PUBLIC ENEMY and a lot of films. But they had had a fist fight on a hunting trip, and they weren’t talking to each other, they hadn’t talk to each other for a couple years. So Zanuck must have wondered what the hell is going on when his secretary told him Wellman is out in the waiting room and wants to see you. So Zanuck says ok, send him in. And he says [to Wellman], ‘Did you forget we’re not talking?’, and my Dad says , “No I Didn’t forget. But I came to you because I wanted to tell you about the best story I ever had. And Zanuck says, ‘Why Did you come to me?’ My Dad says “because you’re my last resort”.—From the informative and compelling commentary on the Arrow Bluray release of 20th Century Fox’s THE OX-BOW INCIDENT.

This is one of my favorite films of all time. And is one of William Wellman’s best films. Which is saying a lot, because this film was made on a shoestring budget, no money for location shooting, or sets, etc. Zanuck while he liked the story, new it wasn’t a commercial film, and agreed to do it providing it came in under budget and Wellman would agree to do two films for Zanuck, without question. It was a loss leader and Zanuck new it. Upon initial preview, reportedly other studio heads wanted the movie shelved, and his wife was outraged that he would have agreed to make such a film.

It is to Zanuck’s credit, that despite these pressures, and his certainty of the film as a financial loss, he thought enough of the film as a work of art (which was born out by critical if not commercial response to the film) and enough of Wellman as Director, that against all objections he made and released the film, in exchange for getting those two financially viable films from Wellman.

The rub is, what has survived into the 21st century conversation is mostly not those successful A tier films, but is this commercial failure B film… THE OX-BOW INCIDENT. Upon one of the early previews, the audience at the end were mostly silent. Wellman, known for rousing, action packed, crowd pleasing films; was not known for this. Arguably in 1942, no one had seen a film like this. The preview crowd, watched this film, and when the credits rolled, there was silence. Silence as people walked out. Orson Welles, who was at that preview is quoted as saying to one of the actors who was also at the film, as a consolation, and an appreciation “They don’t know yet, what they just saw.”

 

Welles was right. The film was ahead of its time then. And remains today timeless in its message, and timely. A great film.

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