Tuesday, March 31, 2009

MOVIES: #1 North To Alaska

I might have mentioned an affection for dark-haired beauties with French accents. It all started with 1960's North To Alaska, the 'northern' with John Wayne struggling against a conman, crooks and thieves, his own partners and trying hard NOT to fall in love with Capucine's character, Michelle aka Angel.

When I saw this on TV in the mid-sixties, I liked all of the movie, but especially the brunette model from France who became the love interest of many a BIG Hollywood name. William Holden, Peter Sellers and the producer of this movie, who installed Capucine in the only female role of consequence in the show. Charley Feldman was right to fire the original director (who protested the casting) and bring on Henry Hathaway to ride herd on some of the most intriguing acting talent Hollywood had at the time.

Wayne, of course, was the headliner, playing Sam McCord. Sam and his partner, George Pratt, played by Stewart Granger, hit a gold motherlode. It was enough for Sam to be sent off down the coast to fetch George's lady-love, Jenny, and some needed mining equipment. George stayed behind to guard the gold, along with his kid brother Billy, played by Fabian, crossing over from making teen girls swoon. Before setting off on the boat, Sam, ran into newly-arrived conman, Frankie Canon, played by Ernie Kovacs. It was one of the last movie roles Kovacs ever played. He died less than two years later. But the comedian-by-trade left an indelible mark with his crook-with-a-smile Frankie.

Sam had a problem in Seattle. George MIGHT have over-stated the relationship he had with Jenny just a little bit. She was now married with kids. Sam moped around a bit and then came up with a genuine brainstorm. He inveigled a prostitute to 'become' the future Mrs. Pratt, figuring George wouldn't know the difference, having been away for so long, and all. Michelle more or less jumped at the chance.

The trip back took a bit of time, including stopping at a logging camp where the locals knew Sam and made Michelle feel quite welcome. It's where we got the first concrete evidence the big lug and Michelle were meant for each other. Naturally, Sam wouldn't hear of it. He was bringing back George's girl. That was it.

The town they eventually come back to, was in complete chaos. Lawlessness had largely broken out under the guise of... well... paid-for jurisprudence. Frankie controlled the town and had his mitts on most of the gold in the area. George and Billy were holdouts, but even the Prat/McCord claim was under contest. And of course, we had gun-toting raiders trying to take what they had mined by force. Despite all of that, George had finished the cabin he and Jenny would be living in, a few feet from the other men's cabin. When Sam got back with his switched bride, George fought off some immediate disappointment, but then got behind the plan full-bore.

Fortunately, true love's path, which is about the same path as lay between the two cabins, eventually won out in the end. Frankie got involved (he knows Angel from before) to his own ultimate detriment and downfall. Sam clued in at the end and we had ourselves a happy ever after.

Trust me, there are a lot of laughs and some great stunts in this movie, enough to evoke The Three Stooges. Frankie is sort of a larcenous Dean Martin, smoking a stogey and grinning, while trying to steal everybody's eye teeth. George and Billy have their moments. And Capucine remains radiantly above it all throughout the movie. It's just about perfect entertainment, right through to the end when the great Johnny Horton lets loose with the title song over the closing credits.

I was in Los Angeles, staying in a hotel across from the UCLA Medical Centre, the night John Wayne died there. I was really quite touched by the special Jack Perkins ran that night. John Wayne wasn't a multi-talented actor. He played John Wayne in just about every movie he ever made. But he did it with an honesty and a wink, and that's all the audience ever really deserved. You knew what you were getting when you went to a John Wayne movie.

This was John Wayne as good as he ever was. Ernie Kovacs was brilliant and it's a tragedy it was to be one of his final performances. And then there was Capucine, the desirable, and troubled, beauty with the 'Frenchy' accent. She, too, had a tragic ending to her life, succeeding after many failures, to commit suicide.

Despite all of that, North To Alaska remains my favourite movie of the twentieth century.

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