Jennifer Jones and Greg Peck can't quit each other in... Duel in the Sun (1946)
This is my entry for the Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, which celebrates all actors with the last name Barrymore. To read the rest of the stunning roster, click here.
Imagine you're David O. Selznick. In 1939, you poured everything you had into a giant Civil War epic, a picture that was touted as the greatest movie to ever come along -- it was such a phenomenon, its impact and cultural status were recognized immediately, unlike say, Citizen Kane. Every movie you did afterwards, some critic or middling intellectual or gossip columnist had to sniff that it wasn't the next Gone with the Wind. So, you decide to go for broke once more and create another sprawling historical drama, and this time it'll star the biggest sensation Hollywood has ever seen, a beautiful actress named Jennifer Jones, who you just happen to be in love with. The film is Duel in the Sun, and despite Selznick's ulcers and nights of popping pills, his attempt to make a bigger and grander GWTW fell flat. That's not to say that Duel in the Sun isn't a good, entertaining flick, but how many of you heard its title and didn't instantly recognize it like you would if you heard Casablanca or, well, Gone with the Wind? Unfortunately, the same can be said for Jennifer Jones. I personally really enjoy Jones, and I'm sure she's familiar to classic film fans for her work in The Song of Bernadette and Portrait of Jennie, but it's doubtful her name inspires anything in modern moviegoers. She didn't rise to the heights of Bette Davis or Audrey Hepburn, much to Selznick's supreme disappointment. Three years after Duel in the Sun's 1946 release, the producer and his star were married; they were still together when Selznick died in 1965. Their love story always upsets me because Jones had been married to Robert Walker at the time, and when she left him in 1945, it destroyed the poor guy, who would experience mental illness and alcoholism until his premature death in 1951 at the age of 32.
Pearl is a contradiction of things, making for an interesting female protagonist and one who left me riveted, partly thanks to Jones. When Pearl arrives in her new town, she's met by Jesse McCanles (Joseph Cotten) who was sent to bring Pearl back to the ranch. The problem is he expected a little girl and she thinks he's trying to get fresh; their misunderstanding demonstrates Pearl's street smarts as she tries to avoid this strange man. Once they figure out who each other are, Pearl is immediately eager to please. When he mentions that she'd look better in bright colors, she offers to change into her yellow blouse right then and there. Her change in attitude makes sense -- the McCanles family is her only refuge and she doesn't want them to change their mind. Despite her knowing to be weary of men trying to pick her up, Pearl is still relatively naive and innocent, making Duel in the Sun an unexpected coming-of-age story. The #1 struggle for Pearl is trying to adhere to what her father told her before his execution: "Through some miracle, you're good and you're decent and you're strong."
Because of Sam's murder, Lewt goes on the run. However, because his libido is stronger than his brain, he sneaks back to Spanish Bit to see Pearl one more time. He's in for a bit of a surprise when he enters her room and she points a gun at him, growling that she's going to kill him. Lewt reminds her that that's not ladylike, but she's pissed. Her feelings for the big jerk overtake her, though, and soon she's begging him to take her with him to Mexico. There's crying and screaming and yes, clutching to his leg involved, which makes the scene seem a little ridiculous until you consider her situation. Jesse is gone; Laura Belle is dying; the Senator hates her and will likely throw her out once Laura Belle dies; no one else will marry her and make her respectable because they'll be terrified of Lewt. If he said no one could have her, why won't he take her?
Duel in the Sun wasn't appreciated when it was first released. Critics bemoaned Selznick trying to topple Gone with the Wind, many of them all too happy to point out that he failed. I've found a lot of classic film fans who dislike the film as well, but I just can't agree with them. The direction is great, as is the Dimitri Timokin score and the cinematography. Everyone in the cast does a stellar job, too, especially Jones and Peck. Yes, things get dramatic and overheated, but you can't tell me it's not entertaining. Plus, it's a tale about obsession, so stuff is going to get a bit crazy. I think what people also lose sight of is Jones's character. If you told me Pearl's story was going to end with her hardened and ready to murder, I wouldn't have believed you. She has a lot of interesting facets, if only you sit down and think about them.
While clearly overblown at times, Duel in the Sun is a fascinating way to spend 145 minutes. If you're like me, you'll find yourself rooting for any side of its central love triangle, as well as Pearl in general. Jones is an actress I'd love to see more of, especially after revisiting this film, and there's no way you can go wrong with 1940's Gregory Peck. Even if you don't like his acting, you can just stare at him and all is okay. If you'd like to read more about the movie's intriguing production history, I direct you here. Enjoy!
|Pearl is horrified when Lewt starts stripping down and acts like he's going to join her.|
|The transition I talked about. She goes from this...|
|Lewt is proud of himself for shooting Pearl...|
|Until he realizes that he actually loves her. L'amour fou!|