Sunday, January 16, 2011

Don't Make a Scene (Sing-Along Month Edition): Rio Bravo

The Story: Harmony (noun): 1. agreement; accord; harmonious relations. 2. the simultaneous combination of tones, esp. when blended into chords pleasing to the ear; chordal structure, as distinguished from melody and rhythm.

One of the things missing in most modern movies these days (possibly because audiences might find it "corny") is "the sing-along," where a group of characters participate in a collective musical performance that shows they can work together as a group to a common purpose.  Corny?  Maybe.  But it's a great audio-visual short-hand for communicating a dramatic idea—the resolving of differences.  Just as an orchestra can combine rhythm, brass, and strings to a unified whole, so, too, can disparate personalities and talents come together to create a sum greater than the parts.  We see this work in music groups  all the time, and there's no more obvious example in the movies than the Beatles documentary Let It Be, where the four writer-musicians bicker and back-bite, but manage to put it all together in their final concert on the Apple Studio roof-top, a meshing performance that shows just how good they could be.

This month, in our regular "Don't Make a Scene" section, we'll present four sing-along's from movies that display dramatically, through music, the putting-aside of differences in the creation of a unified effort—harmony.
And as music is the important element here, and really doesn't work one note at a time, we will temporarily dispense with the usual frame-by-frame breakdowns, and present the scenes in their full 24 frames per second vitality.

Howard Hawks was the master of this musical sub-text (he was a master of sub-text, period).  He used music, not only for its intrinsic entertainment value, but also to infer dramatic points that moved the story along.

This is one of my favorites because of the back-story contained in the movie.  It's Rio Bravo, Hawks' return to the Western after a decade.   It's a "back lot" western (as opposed to the scenic location kind, à la his Red River), low on sweeping vistas and more on character development and interaction.  In this story, Sheriff Chance (John Wayne) is holding a member of the murderous Burdette family (Claude Akins) in his jail.  Rio Bravo is something like an "anti-High Noon:" The Sheriff knows his job, and knows he's working the long odds, would like some help, but will be damned if he'll ask for it, and doesn't want any volunteers who'll just get in the way, neither.

He has a drunken deputy, "Dude" (Dean Martin, cranking up his acting career after the Martin and Lewis break-up), fighting the dry-heaves and the trembles, and a crippled....something or "Stumpy" (Walter Brennan).  Relations are strained, what with Dude being a bit less than dependable however much he may want to help, Chance's nervousness and high-handedness, and Stumpy's endless jabbering. 

Then, this kid shows up with a wagon train—"Colorado" (Ricky Nelson, out of "Ozzie & Harriet," which was used to good effect launching his career as an "Elvis-lite").  Colorado's good with a gun, but smart enough to stay out of the way, though he keeps telling Chance information he's heard in town (irritating the hell out of Dude).  Dude sees the kid and recognizes himself in his better days and resents it ("Is he as good as I used to be?" Dude asks, self-pityingly.  "It'd be pretty close," says Chance, charitably. "I'd hate to have to live on the difference."

They're at odds, in dire circumstances—holed up in the jail, with Burdette and his "30 or 40 men, all professionals," surrounding them, and just to underscore the point, Burdette has a town saloon band play "Degüello" ("the cutthroat song") that Santa Anna played before the final assault on the Alamo mission.  This causes Dude to give up the drink, and clean up for what may be his last actions.  And Colorado joins the group of defenders, having a crisis of conscience.

You fight fire with fire.  You fight music with music.  And as Hawks has two singers in his cast, it would be a waste not to use them so.  It's a slow collaboration process.  Dude sings, Colorado plays guitar, Dude hands the vocals over to Colorado, while he whistles counterpoint, then the two back-and-forth before ending in simultaneous harmony.  The two have put aside their differences, and combined their strengths...with some harmonica help from Stumpy.  It's no wonder Chance looks pleased in scene.  Instead of fighting each other, everybody is focused on their common goals...and common enemies.  "That all ya got?" asks a wagon-master when he hears of Chance's deputies.  "That's WHAT I got." replies Chance.  And focused, the odds just got better.

"That's real pretty."

Next week: A sing-along from a modern era movie.

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