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.

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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.


Duel in the Sun opens like a fable, with an uncredited Orson Welles (!) introducing us in voiceover to the tale of Pearl Chavez, a half-white and half-Native American girl who disappeared with her outlaw lover in the times of the Old West. Their last known location was near the huge Squaw's Head Rock, where now a one-of-a-kind flower grows: "Pearl, who was herself a wild flower, sprung from the hard clay, quick to blossom, and early to die." So, who was this mysterious Pearl? The film wastes no time at all in showing us, as the image of the flower fades to Jennifer Jones's marvelous face as she freely dances on the street outside of a giant saloon. Inside the saloon are Pearl's parents, her depressed father Scott (Herbert Marshall) and her wildly promiscuous mother (Tilly Losch). The interesting thing is that the movie instantly starts comparing Pearl to her mother -- they're both introduced dancing to the same music, and they share similar features such as their loose dark hair. The major difference, though, is that Pearl is dancing for children while her mother's audience is comprised of randy men who clearly have more than dancing on their minds.

One of these men, played by Sidney Blackmer, leaves the saloon with Pearl's mother and they not-too-subtly go to a brothel for a little rendezvous. Pearl's father watches it all, and right in front of Pearl's eyes he goes to the brothel and shoots the couple dead (tastefully done with silhouettes in a window). And so Pearl's story begins with tragedy. Scott Chavez doesn't put up a fight with the court and on the day he's scheduled for his hanging, he sends Pearl to stay with the McCanles family on their sprawling ranch, Spanish Bit. The McCanles matriarch, Laura Belle (Lillian Gish), was Scott's one true love, but she married McCanles instead. It's just the beginning of many frustrations and doomed romances that the film will slowly uncover.

 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."

This is tested the second she meets Jesse's brother, Lewton, played by the irresistibly gorgeous Gregory Peck. While Jesse and Pearl's first meeting is cute, Pearl and Lewt's is frankly, well, hot. Laura Belle is showing their new housemate around the premises when Lewt rides up on his horse. The two can't keep their eyes off of each other and suddenly the camera assumes Lewt's point of view as he looks her up and down. An electric charge strikes that never lets up whenever the two share the screen, and to be honest, it's the main reason why I like this film. Lewt challenges what Pearl wants to be, which is a "good girl." Jesse, on the other hand, tries to help her achieve her goodness. If there was a central theme to Duel in the Sun, it'd be the dichotomy between good and evil, the civilized and the wild. Laura Belle and Jesse are the good guys, while Lewt and his father (Lionel Barrymore) are the bad guys.

Nicknamed the Senator, the McCanles patriarch is crude, snide, and positively racist, as evidenced by his attitude towards Pearl and her Native American heritage. He also quite clearly resents her father's past with his wife (which I'll talk more about later). In a telling sequence, Pearl promises Laura Belle that she'll be good and desperately wants to follow in the woman's footsteps; meanwhile in the next room, Lewt tells the Senator that he wants to be like him. Interestingly, Laura Belle reminds Pearl that although she's been a good person, she has never really found happiness. This doesn't deter the girl, though, who finds herself straddling the line between good and evil throughout the film. Pearl, however, equates goodness with being a lady, an idea that seems to have stemmed from her environment. Her mother did "bad" things and was never treated like a lady, whereas Laura Belle is nice and proper, earning her everyone's respect and admiration. Pearl's conflict is that she isn't sure how to be what people define as a lady -- she has impulses and desires that contradict what she's supposed to conform to, and no one tells her that these feelings are okay, leading her to believe that they're evil. Instead of being allowed to embrace what she feels, the "good" people tell her to stifle it. For example: she's thrilled when she sees Jesse blow smoke rings from his cigar, but when she asks him to teach her how to do it, he gently chides her that ladies don't smoke.

Pearl's sexual desires are the biggest source of conflict, naturally. She and Jesse become very close, and he gets plenty of opportunities to sweep her off her feet, but he's much too gentlemanly to do it, causing frustration for both the audience and Pearl. The first night she stays at Spanish Bit, they talk in the doorway to Jesse's room, slowly getting closer and closer until they're practically snuggling. Their lips are about an inch away from touching when Jesse catches himself and tells Pearl to go to bed "like a good little girl." This is all in stark contrast to her encounter with Lewt just seconds later. On the way to her room, her lantern reveals that Lewt had been standing in the dark waiting for her. Without a word, he forces his way into her room and kisses her, despite the fight she puts up. It's one of many moments where Gregory Peck makes you hold your breath. What's he going to do? How far will he go? What will Pearl's reaction be?

The day after this incident, Lewt appeals to Pearl by showing her tricks he can do with his horse and laughing at her stubborn claims that she can ride bareback when she most certainly cannot. Seeing how much she adores his horse Dice, he gives it to her, prompting her to clarify that he "didn't buy me just givin' me a horse." Their tempestuous relationship goes a step further when Lewt finds Pearl swimming naked at a secluded pond and he refuses to leave so she can get dressed. They miss dinner,
causing Pearl to panic about what Laura Belle will think. When Lewt crassly tells his mother they went swimming, Laura Belle believes the worst and Pearl is so pissed she smears her jelly-covered piece of toast all over his face. This action may not be ladylike, but it's certainly warranted. It's also one of several instances in the film where Pearl's beauty is mistaken for promiscuity. The first time Lewt kisses her, he assumes that it's not the first time a man's done that, but it is. After hearing about the swimming incident, Laura Belle has a preacher named Jubal Crabbe (Walter Huston) come to Spanish Bit to talk with Pearl. Unfortunately, Laura Belle calls for the girl while she's sleeping in the nude and so she just wraps her blanket around her, unaware that she's going to meet Crabbe. The preacher takes one look at her and declares she was "built by the devil to drive men crazy;" he then gives her a necklace that will keep her "sweet and clean as the day's first milkin'" and says a prayer for all the men who look at Pearl to be given mercy.

The next time Pearl and Lewt see each other, things get steamy quickly. I have to admit, though, that it's a little terrifying at first. Pearl is busy scrubbing her bedroom floor when Lewt slowly walks in, shuts the door, removes his hat, and flicks his cigarette away, all while looking at Pearl as if she were lunch. She tries to take control of the situation by throwing a wet rag in his face and making a run for it, but Lewt catches her and her resistance gives away to passion as they kiss. The film is none too subtle
when a storm starts just as they succumb to their feelings, but what did surprise me the first time I watched this was that Lewt and Pearl actually do have sex. And the film acknowledges it, almost as brazenly as the "morning-after" scene with Scarlett when she's grinning in bed. Jesse comes home to tell Pearl he's leaving Spanish Bit, but when he knocks on her door, you hear her voice pleading with him to go. Then you hear Lewt invite him in, and all it takes is one look at an ashamed Pearl and a
self-satisfied Lewt adjusting his clothes and lighting a cigarette to know what just happened. (Interestingly, the bed is still neat -- was the scene already too much for the Hays Office, so the bed couldn't be messed up?) Jesse is clearly disappointed, and although he tells a sobbing Pearl that he understands, he also says he will never be able to forget what he saw. These words have a huge effect on Pearl, almost dictating her course for the rest of the movie. It doesn't help that Jesse finally admits that he loved Pearl, which might have kept her away from Lewt
had she known sooner. All of this makes Pearl feel worse -- she gave into desire and became "trash" (her words), when she could have been with Jesse and turned into a lady. After Jesse leaves, Pearl commiserates in her room when suddenly an idea hits her. Sitting up and doing that sensual Jennifer Jones stare, Pearl comes to a decision: "All right, Jesse. You said you'd never forget." She then slinks around the room, signifying that she's not going to try to be a good girl anymore. It's kind of a weird
transition, one that happens so quickly it's a little bizarre. But as her "bad girl" phase goes on, you realize it's all just an act. She's still desperate to be good, she's just gotten a little lost. With everyone who is good telling her that sex is bad, her indiscretion with Lewt makes her feel tainted and unworthy. If Jesse had said "You're still a decent person" instead of looking at her with disgust, who knows how Pearl's story would have turned out? Immediately after Jesse has left, Pearl becomes Lewt's girl, cheering
him on when he's trying to tame a horse and inviting him to go swimming (wink wink). This all looks like she's suddenly become a full-blown temptress, with her shirt pulled down so her shoulders are bare and her facial expressions looking almost orgasmic. But then we arrive at the pond, and while it's no shock that the twosome is making out instead of swimming, it's interesting when between heated kisses, Pearl asks Lewt if he's going to marry her. Obviously not thinking with his head, Lewt replies "Of course!" He then notices her necklace from Crabbe and throws it into the water, declaring "I don't want no milkmaid!"

Not long after this, an annual dance held at Spanish Bit takes place, which is when Pearl believes that Lewt is going to announce their engagement. When he reveals to her that he lied, she feels a lovely mixture of anger, sadness, and embarrassment. She then runs into sweet Sam Pierce (Charles Bickford), an older cowboy whom Pearl uses to make Lewt jealous for the rest of the dance. After awhile, though, she and Sam have become close, and he proposes to her in a scene that is so endearing, it's apt to make your heart break. That description also sums up Sam -- Pearl accepts his proposal, but before they can get married, Lewt guns him down. I must rave about King Vidor's direction in that scene for a minute, because it's set up so nicely. The camera first shows a sign in a saloon about giving your gun to the bartender in order to receive service. Sam hands his in and orders a round to celebrate his impending wedding as he proudly looks at the wedding band he just picked up. There are guys sitting at the bar, but you don't really pay much attention to them until you suddenly hear Lewt's voice telling Sam to save
his money -- those extras at the bar were concealing the saloon entrance so Lewt's arrival comes as a surprise. Lewt sits at the opposite end of the bar, creating a cool mise-en-scene. There's a close-up on Sam's hand slowly reaching for his gun, until he remembers it's just an empty holster. "Pearl Chavez is my girl and she'll always be my girl, just as long as I want her to be," Lewt warns right before he plugs poor Sam. The last thing we see is Pearl's wedding ring falling from his hand.

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?

After Lewt takes off, Jesse returns to the ranch to see his mother, only to find out he is too late. Pearl feels like she's at rock bottom, but Jesse invites her to come live with him and his new fiancee, giving her a chance to become the lady she always wanted to be. Pearl reminds him that he said he couldn't forget what she and Lewt did, and Jesse responds in complete ignorance that he didn't really mean it and he hopes his words "didn't make any difference." Well, they sure as hell did! But Pearl doesn't let him know that, and they stay at a hotel in the town for the night before they make the trip to Jesse's home. Unfortunately, one of Spanish Bit's workers is in Lewt's pocket, so news of Jesse whisking away Pearl reaches the outlaw. The next day, the brothers have a showdown -- Lewt wants Pearl, but there's no way Jesse is letting that happen. So, without an ounce of remorse, Lewt shoots his brother and leaves town, promising to come back for Pearl. Fear not, though, for Jesse isn't dead; he's just badly wounded. His fiancee, Helen, arrives and she meets Pearl for the first time. One of the things I appreciate about this movie is the fact that the women aren't pitted against each other. It'd be very easy for Helen to resent Pearl and lay all the blame at her feet for Jesse's condition, but instead the two women respect one another and would probably become great friends.

Lewt sends a messenger to tell Pearl to meet him at Squaw's Head Rock, and let me tell you, Jennifer Jones's acting from here to the end is amazing. She's incredibly angry at Lewt for shooting Jesse, but she's very interested in meeting up with him. To forgive him and then run away together, you may ask? Oh no. That glint in her eyes tells you this girl is out for blood, literally. Duel in the Sun has one of my favorite movie endings ever -- it's a little crazy, a little melodramatic, but it had my mouth gaping open the first time I
saw it. Armed with a shotgun, Pearl travels to Squaw's Head Rock and fires two shots to let Lewt know she's there. He's thrilled she came and shouts for her to stay there and he'll come to her. Jones looks glorious as her eyes become steely and she affects a smirk as Peck gets closer to her. As soon as she gets a clear shot, she fires and Lewt goes down. She's satisfied, but only until she realizes what she's done, which is
shoot the guy she really loves. Before she can ruminate on it any longer, though, Lewt catches her in the shoulder with a bullet. Slowly, they drag their wounded bodies closer and closer to each other, both hoping to be the victor. Pearl becomes a total badass, and so was Jones, who wasn't allowed to wear padding as she climbed the rough terrain (oddly enough, those orders came from her lover, Selznick). Pearl hits Lewt again, and this time it's right in the gut, immobilizing him and making him realize that he's not going to make it out of there alive. Panicked, Lewt calls for Pearl so he can see her before he dies; the tone in his voice surprises Pearl and now that she's gotten her vengeance, she hurries as fast as she can to be by his side. It's grueling to watch as they call for each other, both of them getting weaker and bloodier. Will Pearl make it before it's too late? Thankfully, the movie takes pity on my poor heart and Pearl is successful. She tells Lewt she had to do what she did, and he doesn't blame her a bit -- he even admits that she was right about her shooting skills, something she said earlier in the film that he considered doubtful. They have one last kiss before they die. Cheery stuff, I know.

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.

Since this is for the Barrymore blogathon, though, let's talk about Lionel Barrymore. He never gave a bad performance, and the Senator is definitely more layered thanks to Barrymore. The Senator is awful -- he favors Lewt over Jesse, he seems to hate his lovely wife, and he's a terror to Pearl, using all sorts of offensive language to mock her Native American heritage. But then the railroad comes in. You see, the Senator is totally against the railroad, so much so that when the railroad owner (Otto Kruger) wants to lay down tracks near Spanish Bit, the Senator gathers all his employees, arms them, and takes them to have a standoff. He threatens to fire on anyone who steps foot over his fence, no matter if they're armed or not. Luckily for the railroad, a military calvary comes in to back them up. Seeing the American flag one of the soldiers is holding, the Senator's resolve crumbles before our eyes: "I once fought for that flag. I'll not fire on it." Barrymore has tears in his eyes and you see just how defeated his character is. Times are changing, and Jesse had sided with the railroad, unwilling to be a part of any merciless killing.

In a scene much later, the Senator sits in Laura Belle's room as she's dying. She know she's going, so she apologizes to her husband for the accident that put him in a wheelchair, a touchy story that's alluded to at the beginning of the film but never explained until now. Apparently at some early point in their marriage, Laura Belle left the Senator and ran away. He assumed she was going to meet up with Scott Chavez, which he could never let happen, so he chased after her and became crippled after his horse threw him. Barrymore is magnificent to watch as he recounts how he went insane at the thought of Scott and his wife, although the truth was that she was alone. The Senator is so caught up in the past, he doesn't seem to register Laura Belle dragging herself out of the bed and kneeling at his feet before she falls to the floor dead. Are you sure you want to be like your dad, Lewt?

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...

to this.


Lewt is proud of himself for shooting Pearl...

Until he realizes that he actually loves her. L'amour fou!


With love,
Michaela

Comments

  1. I have a bit of a soft spot for this film, even if it is a bit humid. Jennifer is just so damn lovely here. As for Lionel - he makes a baddie even badder, Nobody played a mean man better than him.

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    1. Agreed! Nice to see that someone else enjoys this movie. Jennifer Jones never seems to get the credit she deserves, then and now.

      Thanks for reading!

      Delete
  2. I have a bad habit of judging a film before I see it. It's not a good way to be – but the good thing is, I am almost always pleasantly surprised by films I thought I wouldn't like.

    I've not seen this one because I always thought I wouldn't care for it. Your review, however, has changed my (closed) mind. Thanks for this thoughtful and thorough review. I'll let you know what I think when I see it! :)

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    1. Please do! I would love to hear what you think, good or bad. A big reason why I love blogging is it gives me a platform to defend the movies that I love and/or feel like get unfair treatment.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      Delete
  3. I need to see this one. I wasn't a fan of hers for a while, but that strange Beat the Devil movie changed my mind. And Jones and Peck! What a duo! You've done a marvelous job making me want to abandon my work for today and watch the film:)

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    1. Thanks so much! I've had Beat the Devil on DVD for a long time, but I haven't watched it yet -- I forgot Jones was in it, so now I'll have to check it out sooner. She and Peck make quite the pair!

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  4. I agree that Lionel Barrymore never gave a bad performance!
    At first, Teresa Wright was set to play the lead, but got pregnant and had to refuse the role. I don't think she would have been a convincing Indian, either... but I still prefer Jennifer Jones as Saint Bernadette!
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Cheers!
    Le

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    1. Much as I love Teresa Wright, I don't think she was right for this part, although it certainly would have been interesting. Jones just had this great ability to project sexiness but still hold on to a convincing innocence and vulnerability.

      Thanks for stopping by! While I haven't seen the 1922 version of Sherlock Holmes yet, I enjoyed your post. John Barrymore as my favorite detective? Count me in!

      Delete
  5. Have you read the book? It was written by Niven Busch who was Teresa Wright's husband at the time. It fleshes out Jesse's character a bit more, and the ending is different than the one for the film.

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    1. Interesting! I'll have to add the book to my reading list. I'm surprised the book was that new -- for some reason in my mind I figured the source material was much older. Thanks for visiting, and for the info!

      Delete
  6. Haven't seen this one so I look forward to checking it out! I love how that really vibrant red ties Pearl and Lewt's costumes together - a really nice visual cue. I must admit, when I saw the poster, I didn't expect this to be such a 'vibrant' film, if that makes sense?!
    (Vicki from GirlsDoFilm)

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    1. I know what you mean. When I was looking for a poster, none of them really captured the film for me, which is bizarre when you consider that all of its elements are ripe for interesting artwork. Jones's costumes are pretty great, full of nice colors. I noticed that red tie-in you mentioned and forgot to include it in my post, so thanks for commenting on it!

      Delete
  7. Michaela, what an wonderful job you've done with one of my favorite films (which I don't especially like, but absolutely love). Came across your blog while searching for a still of the death scene to illustrate a FB post about an ant who'd just killed a moth 10x her size on my desk and was clinging onto it, even carrying the dead moth around until I got distracted and inadvertently knocked them apart. Then the ant began a slow, agonizing struggle to get to the moth - which after 30 minutes, she did (I'd named her Pearl midway through this). The only thing missing was a garish sunset. Thanks for adding so much to my afternoon here in sleepy Mozambique ...

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    1. What an interesting way to get to my blog! I wish my stills had been better; usually I put the DVD in my laptop and take screenshots, but since I don't have the DVD for this film, I just took photos of my TV. That scene between Lewt and Pearl is just so good, and although I find the movie ridiculous at times, I'm pretty sure I'm in love with it.

      Thanks so much for leaving a comment!

      Delete

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