"The Searchers" and "Bus Stop," the highlights of the Garden Grove Film Festival this weekend, are as different as the rattle and the rattlesnake, but they do have something in common--each features, arguably, the best performance by its biggest star: John Wayne in "Searchers" and Marilyn Monroe in "Bus Stop."
As Ethan Edwards, a loner almost destroyed by his hatred of the Indians who killed his family, Wayne plays the linchpin in "The Searchers," John Ford's most compelling film. Wayne, an actor often dismissed for the two-dimensional screen image he so carefully crafted, is up to the task Ford put before him, helping turn the 1956 movie into an artful Western that faces frontier racism along its dusty way.
Nobody would put "Bus Stop" in the same category, but this rowdy, sentimental swoon over romance (a minor entertainment classic in its own right) gave Monroe a similar opportunity to expand on her film persona. Fresh from several months of classes at Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio in New York and back in films after a year's absence, Monroe glowed in the role of Cherie, the soiled chanteuse at the center of "Bus Stop" (which also came out in 1956).
The festival begins Saturday at 11 a.m. with "The Searchers" (it's double-billed with "Moby Dick," starring Gregory Peck). When asked to name his favorite role, Wayne often wavered between "Quiet Man" (1952) and "The Searchers." He was rightfully proud of both--in each, he carries the trappings of the quintessential hero able to meet any challenge, yet there's a shadow on the image.
It's especially true in "The Searchers." His Ethan is a leader, family man and lover of simple virtues, but there's a gap in his conscience concerning the Indian, especially the warring Comanches. Director Ford and screenwriter Frank S. Nugent gave him a role that's full of anger and twisted psychology, and Wayne presents a complicated performance that, remarkably, doesn't wreck the usual Wayne archetype along the way. He inspires both disgust and admiration.
The story hinges on the five-year search for Ethan's niece, Debbie (played as a child by Lana Wood and as a young woman by Natalie Wood), who was abducted by Comanches after they murdered her family. Ethan, returning to find the burned-out homestead and mutilated bodies, rides off with his dead brother's adopted son, Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), in tow. There's a romanticized beauty in the trek, provided by Ford's customary mastery at filming the prairie landscape. With the help of cinematographer Winton C. Hoch, Ford presents the panorama like a rolling Charles Russell painting, finding both the majestic and picturesque in the broad vistas.
But the visual elegance contrasts with Ethan's own virulence, which Ford shows reaches beyond mere sorrow and into something uglier. Ethan's obsession prompts him to shoot out the eyes of a dead Indian so his spirit will wander blind through the afterlife. Soon after, he tries to slaughter a buffalo herd so the Comanches won't have anything to eat.
The final conflict of "The Searchers" centers on whether Ethan will murder Debbie because she has become too much like her captors. Ford indulges in a tidy Hollywood ending, but the last shot of Ethan, with Wayne's large body framed in a doorway, alone and isolated, adds a satisfying ambiguity.
The only conflict in "Bus Stop" (screening at 1 p.m. Sunday with "Carousel," starring Gordon McRae and Shirley Jones) is whether Bo, the world's most primitive cowboy, will finally hogtie the beautiful Cherie into marrying him. This folksy romantic comedy is pretty predictable, especially the emotional ending, but there's something endearing (and a little spooky) about Bo's attraction and something vulnerable about Cherie's reaction to it, that keeps you plugged in.
Monroe is obviously the star here, but her supporting cast easily keeps pace. Arthur O'Connell is super as Virge, Bo's father protector, and Eileen Heckart provides a growly contrast to Monroe's softness as Cherie's best friend. Their acting, as it is throughout the ensemble, is a tad hyperventilated, giving the movie a romping energy.
Don Murray as Bo goes beyond romping. Murray, who won a supporting actor Academy Award for his portrayal, is all motor and no manners, all impulse and awe, in the role of a kid who's never been off the ranch and is unprepared for everything he encounters. When Bo sees Cherie singing "That Old Black Magic" in a sleazy honky-tonk, it's like he's watching a miracle at Lourdes. No wonder; Monroe, in a dress tight enough to be a second skin, is one steamy vision.
What: John Ford's "The Searchers" and Joshua Logan's "Bus Stop."
When: "The Searchers" on Saturday, June 22, at 11 a.m.; "Bus Stop" on Sunday, June 23, at 1 p.m.
Where: The Gem Theatre, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove.
Whereabouts: Take the Garden Grove (22) Freeway to Euclid Street and head north. Go west on Garden Grove Boulevard to Main Street and head north.
Wherewithal: $1 for adults, 50 cents for children and seniors.
Where to Call: (714) 741-5284.