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Happy ending for an underdog

Paramount expected 'Shane' to fail. But the western stole audiences' hearts and rode off into the sunset.

June 04, 2003|Michael F. Blake | Special to The Times

The plot of a lone rider helping a group of homesteaders to stand up to a greedy cattle baron has been material for numerous western novels and films over the decades. This story line can be found in the novels of Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour as well as many B-western films. It can also be found in the history of the American West, notably the Johnson County War.

But perhaps the greatest use of this threadbare plot was in the classic western released 50 years ago today: "Shane."

How that film became a classic is another story. It was expected to be a modest hit at best. With weather delays, director George Stevens' meticulous filming and a rising budget, Paramount judged the movie a loser and was ready to sell the film rights to Howard Hughes in return for its initial investment. But much like the film's protagonist, "Shane" has endured.

When Jack Schaefer's novel was first published in 1949, it did not create much of a literary stir. Always on the lookout for new story material, Paramount bought the rights to the novel as a vehicle for contract star Ray Milland or Alan Ladd. In June 1950 the studio offered the novel to producer-director Stevens, who saw it as an "American tale in the King Arthur tradition." Stevens discounted a studio list of writers, feeling few had any experience with writing a western screenplay.

Instead the director chose A.B. Guthrie Jr., who had written the award-winning novel "The Big Sky," because he believed Guthrie could best capture the essence of "Shane." Stevens' script is filled with detailed notes regarding the characters' motivations as well as his concept for the look of the film. The script describes young Joey (Brandon De Wilde) carrying "a lever-action .22 rifle, probably a Winchester '73 or '76." Stevens wrote in the margin, "Make sure these models were made in the .22 caliber." In general, though, Stevens wanted to deglamorize the gun. With the rise in popularity of the TV western, many children were adorning themselves with toy guns. Having seen what a real gun can do to the human body during his World War II service (he headed an Army film unit that covered such events as the freeing of the inmates of Dachau concentration camp), Stevens stated that he wanted to show a gun for "what it was. A destructive, violent instrument."

Rising budget, falling rain

From the time he first read the novel, Stevens envisioned Montgomery Clift as Shane. Stevens was considering William Holden for the Joe Starrett role, and at one point Katharine Hepburn was seriously courted to play Marion.

When Clift and Holden dropped out, it suddenly appeared doubtful that "Shane" would be turned into a movie. Stevens met with studio head Y. Frank Freeman and looked over the roster of contract stars. Within a few minutes, Stevens had chosen Ladd for the role of Shane, Jean Arthur as Marion and Van Heflin as Joe. For Joey, Stevens chose De Wilde, who had recently made a favorable impression in a Broadway play.

One of Stevens' biggest concerns was that everything should appear as authentic as possible, whether it was the characters' clothing or the tools on Starrett's ranch. He found a valuable asset in Joe De Yong, who was raised in Wyoming and knew just about everything there was to know about the West. In a letter to De Yong (who became the film's technical advisor), Stevens was very specific about his desired "look" for the costumes, stating, "We want these people to wear the things that were available to them and that they would wear when they lived in this country at this time.... They didn't have Western Costume Co. to make them look attractive and conspicuous. I make this point strong, Joe, because it seems everybody's effort ... is to make them look as much like Western movie actors as possible."

Stevens selected a location outside Jackson Hole, Wyo. -- a flat, empty sagebrush plain sprawling in the shadow of the giant Teton Range. The film's estimated budget of $1.8 million was based on a 42-day shooting schedule. Anxious to save money, the studio looked for ways of shaving expenses, including filming in black and white instead of in Technicolor..

A month before filming, the rising budget of nearly $2 million made Paramount nervous, especially when Freeman claimed that any "Alan Ladd picture [would] only make $2.6 million." The company began location filming on July 25, 1951, with the exterior set of the Starrett ranch. The daily production report noted the location had "clouds & showers until 4 p.m. as an omen of things to come. George Stevens Jr. remembered, "We had a lot of days where we couldn't get a full day's work [due to the rain]."

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