1 December 2011 | duke1029
Needs more Whitmore
"Across the Wide Missouri" was planned as a sprawling saga of early 19th Century Americana, so there are questions as to how and why it ended up in its present truncated 78 minute form, not much longer than a "B" picture. There shouldn't be any argument that director William A. 'Wild Bill' Wellman's original vision was grander in scope, even epic. Evidence of the cutting can be clearly seen in the cover of the DVD, which duplicates the original one sheet poster. Actor James Whitmore, a big favorite of Wellman's, is given co-star billing and is listed fourth overall in the cast behind MGM leading men Clark Gable, Ricardo Montalban, and John Hodiak and ahead of such venerable character actors as Adolphe Menjou, J. Carrol Naish, and Jack Holt.
Whitmore had starred in the director's previous film, "The Next Voice You Hear" in 1951 and had earned an Oscar nomination for his scene-stealing performance in Wellman's iconic 1949 WWII actioner "Battleground." In the released version Whitmore is not billed in the opening credits and does not appear in the 78 minute film until some 33 minutes into the movie. He cannot be spotted with the mountain men in the sizable "Rendezvous" sequence early in the picture and is not seen on the trek over the Rockies until they're halfway there when he suddenly appears out of nowhere on top of a snow-covered mountain. For the remainder of the film he has only a handful of unimportant lines, which makes one wonder why one of Hollywood's most respected character actors would be squandered in what is essentially a bit role. Among the many ironies associated with this film is that, according to studio records, his character's name is "Bit."
Wellman's MGM contract had concluded with the completion of "The Next Voice You Hear," but when Metro found themselves without a director for their scheduled epic, they asked Wellman to helm the film. 'Wild Bill' agreed on the condition that he be allowed to bring his family along with him on location - at the studio's expense, an offer he couldn't refuse when MGM agreed to his request. With three A-list stars, an exceptional supporting class of character actors, and breathtakingly beautiful locations, it should have been a blockbuster. It wasn't.
The blame, if any, can be laid at the feet of studio boss, Dore Schary, who undoubtedly panicked after attending a preview when he found that the audience that had cheered the opening credits "lost interest" about halfway through. Producer Sam Zimbalist, who wasn't involved with the picture, suggested drastic cuts to be bridged by an afterthought narration by Howard Keel. Although scripted by Talbot Jennings, one of the film's co-writers, the narration is leadenly heavy-handed and overly literal and drowns the director's visual subtleties. An embittered Wellman remarked, " They cut out all the action and put in a narration to fill the holes. This was a good, long picture the way I made it. I've never seen it and I never will." Ironically Wellman re-signed with MGM, and his next picture, "Westward the Women," covered some of the same territory as "Missouri," albeit more successfully.
An added irony is that the same Dore Schary, supposedly the most literate and tasteful of all studio heads in Golden Age Hollywoosd, was a serial offender. Only a few months earlier he butchered John Huston's brilliant adaptation of "The Red Badge of Courage" down to "B" picture length of a mere 69 minutes with bridging narration spoken by non-other than... James Whitmore!
One last sad irony... as I write this review, news that Judy Lewis, age 76, passed away today is on the Web. She was the secret love child of Clark Gable and Loretta Young, conceived during the filming of another Wellman Western epic, "The Call of the Wild" in 1935. Miss Young never acknowledged that Lewis was her biological daughter and claimed she was adopted. Lewis' memoir "Uncommon Knowledge" was published in 1995.