If there’s any cinematographer whose work deserves the red carpet treatment on DVD, it’s John Alton.
Alton was a master. He worked fast — coming to the set fully prepared and not using a lot of lights. And while “painting with light” was his thing, evidently diplomacy was not. He was fired a lot, until he finally got fed up with the whole business and vanished. Along the way, he went from pictures like An American In Paris (1951), his first color film — and the one that earned him an Oscar, to film noir with Anthony Mann (T-Men, Border Incident, etc.) to cowboy pictures at Republic (Wyoming).
In 1954, Alton found himself at RKO, working with director Allan Dwan on a series of medium-budget films produced by Benedict Bogeaus. These pictures gave Dwan a level of authority (or maybe he simply took charge of things) he hadn’t enjoyed since the silent days. However it came about, he really made the most of it.
Allan Dwan: “John Alton was a fine cameraman and we hit it off well. He was good for us because he’s wonderful with lights — very economical.”
From 1954 to 1956, Dwan and Alton made seven pictures together, all produced by Bogeaus for RKO.
Dwan: “Never over around $800-850,000. About three weeks shooting each — 15 days. That was the design. They were token pictures to keep the studio alive — Hughes wasn’t interested in a big splurge. And none of our pictures warranted a big budget — they all went out and got their money back plus a profit.”
The next to last of these “token pictures,” and the third Western of the bunch, was Tennessee’s Partner (1955) — in Superscope with prints by Technicolor. (Dwan would later list it as his favorite of the films he made for Bogeaus and RKO.)
John Payne is Tennessee, a gambler who’s set up shop in Rhonda Fleming’s saloon — the Marriage Market in Sandy Bar. Ronald Reagan is Cowpoke, who saves Tennessee’s life. Tennessee later proves that Cowpoke’s fiancé, Colleen Gray, is a gold-digger (named, appropriately, Goldie). Speaking of gold, there’s a subplot involving Grubstake McNiven (Chubby Johnson) striking it rich.
Dwan: “…this was a good, honest story, and I liked Bret Harte… I believe the original story was more tragic than ours, but it was very definitely more downbeat. And it was a short story, so we had to stretch it out some way or other.”
To stretch it, they seemed to have played up the humor and action. Dwan’s breezy direction and John Alton’s luscious cinematography make this a real piece of eye candy — aided by the art direction of Van Nest Polglase (Citizen Kane). The way the camera glides through Rhonda Fleming’s gambling hall is worth the price of admission. Then there’s its Technicolor tour of the Iverson Ranch in the last two reels. It’s a gorgeous, yet completely unpretentious, story of friendship and double-crosses.
Tennessee’s Partner has been available on DVD, in a nice full-frame transfer, from VCI for years. Superscope extracted a 2:1 anamorphic image from a full-frame negative — which is what the new edition, again from VCI, replicates. (The lack of a Superscope logo in the credits indicates that full-frame source material was used.) As far as color and sharpness go, this is comparable to their first release. But with the new attention to the framing, Alton’s camerawork is even more impressive. He’s quoted somewhere as saying “It’s not what you light — it’s what you don’t light.” And the 2:1 image, especially in the gambling scenes, really highlights the way he used darkness.
VCI gives us original trailers to Tennessee’s Partner and the other Dwan/Alton/Bogeaus titles they have available. Seen together, they really had me wanting to put together a marathon some weekend.
With a new edition of any film, in any format, there’s always the question of value. Is this worth reaching into my wallet for, again? In my case, certainly, as I’ve been dying to see how Tennessee’s Partner looked in Superscope. For those who own the full-frame version, it’s a matter of personal taste. For the rest, it’s a good picture — a significant 50s Western — and this is by far the best it’s ever been presented on video. Get it here.
[The Allan Dwan quotes come from Allan Dwan: The Last Pioneer by Peter Bogdanovich, one of my favorite film books.]