Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: MCLINTOCK! (1963)

Maureen O'Hara is classic Hollywood's poster girl for the battle of the sexes. With her beautiful face, striking red hair, and strong personality, she is both heroine and harridan, attractive to men as much for her fight as for her figure. In McLintock! (1963), her worthy opponent is frequent co-star John Wayne, although even he spends most of the movie on the run from the inevitable domestic showdown with his formidable feminine counterpart. Since this is 1963, you can probably predict how that combat will end, but it's a fun show in spite of that, with a cast of reliable Western stalwarts and a surprisingly sentimental subplot about the fate of the West's original inhabitants. In fact, McLintock! remains a great favorite among John Wayne fans, beloved for its feisty comedy and the Duke's particular charisma with his leading lady.

Successful cattle rancher George Washington McLintock (Wayne) is the boss of everything except his wife, Katherine (Maureen O'Hara), who left him several years ago, although McLintock has never figured out why. When their grown daughter, Becky (Stefanie Powers), returns from school back East, Katherine also comes back into town, even though she's still fighting mad at McLintock. Young Becky's affections are torn between a citified local dandy (Jerry Van Dyke) and a handsome new ranch hand (Patrick Wayne), while the elder McLintocks lock horns in a marital battle that encompasses the entire town. Meanwhile, McLintock tries to help the region's last Comanche warriors make their case to a tribunal of unsympathetic government officials.

The domestic comedy plays out as a frontier "Taming of the Shrew," where the male characters appreciate high-spirited women but see them as just another kind of wildlife that needs to be conquered and put to work, like more attractive versions of the horses and cattle that roam the open range. It's a sexist premise, but at least the women put up a good fight, and O'Hara's Katie is so ornery and venomous that some measure of comeuppance seems justified. Becky proves to have plenty of her mother's temper, and her courtship with Dev (played by Wayne's son, Patrick) reaches a comic highpoint when Becky demands that her father shoot the offending young man but ends up being subjected to a spanking herself. It's the kind of scene that many people now find rather uncomfortable, but such gender conflicts got big laughs in similar films like Annie Get Your Gun (1950), Kiss Me Kate (1953), and, of course, The Taming of the Shrew (1967).

Countering this sense of domestic violence as comedy is an unexpectedly nostalgic and sympathetic view of Native Americans. The Comanches of the Old West are depicted as inhuman, marauding savages in many movies, including The Searchers (1956), which many consider Wayne's best film. In McLintock! we see Wayne's character defending and respecting the Comanche people, even though he fought with them in earlier days. The character of Davey, a young Native American who has been to college and who works in the town, also makes an interesting commentary about racial identity and the struggle for equality. Of course, like the film's women, the Comanches are doomed to lose to the white men, but they have a poignant final scene as they ride out into the desert, disappearing from the world like figures in a dream.

You'll find a whole round-up of Western veterans filling out the supporting roles, including Chill Wills, Strother Martin, Edgar Buchanan, and Hank Worden. Yvonne De Carlo has a plum role as the widowed mother of Patrick Wayne's character, and her drunk scene with the Duke is particularly funny. O'Hara and Wayne made five pictures together in all, including The Quiet Man (1952) and Big Jake (1971), but for more romantic sparring see her with Tyrone Power in The Black Swan (1942). Patrick Wayne can also be found costarring with his father in The Searchers (1956), The Alamo (1960), and Big Jake (1971). For more Westerns from director Andrew V. McLaglen, the son of veteran character actor Victor McLaglen, try Shenandoah (1965), The Rare Breed (1966), and Chisum (1970).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on Examiner.com. The author retains all rights to this content.