The Art of EL DORADO

29 Jun

50 years ago today, EL DORADO opened in New York City. It was the next-to-last film directed by Howard Hawks and it starred John Wayne and Robert Mitchum. I didn’t see it in 1967; I had to wait till it came back as part of a double feature with William Wyler’s last movie, THE LIBERATION OF L.B. JONES, in 1970, shown at the Earl Theater on 161st Street in the Bronx, just a block away from Yankee Stadium. It’s something of a follow-up to Hawks’ earlier western, RIO BRAVO (1959), which had a similar situation of a small band of lawmen holding a powerful prisoner and fending off attempts by the prisoner’s army of gunslingers to free him. In both films, one of the lawmen is a drunk and has to sober up fast when all hell breaks loose. I wrote about RIO BRAVO in my Dean Martin Centennial piece and I’ll write more about EL DORADO in my upcoming Robert Mitchum Centennial piece, slated for August 6, and in an upcoming piece on the best films of 1967. RIO BRAVO is arguably the better film, offering more layered characters and focusing less on plot mechanics than on character relationships and interactions. It’s a more complex, serious film while EL DORADO is more light-hearted and entertaining. RIO BRAVO is more demanding and, ultimately, more satisfying, but I’ve seen EL DORADO much more often (about ten times to RIO BRAVO’s four or five). It has more clever scenes and imaginative bits of action and great chemistry among its group of lead actors (Wayne, Mitchum, James Caan, Arthur Hunnicutt, Charlene Holt). It also introduces the drunk character (Mitchum) when he’s sober and in full command of his faculties, so we know what he’s like before he sinks into an alcoholic daze. In RIO BRAVO, we just have to accept Wayne’s word that the drunk (Dean Martin) was once his best man with a gun, since we only see him in his drunk phase for roughly the first half of the movie.

What I want to focus on here, however, is the art of EL DORADO, the paintings seen on display under the opening credits as the title song, sung by George Alexander and “accompanied by the Mellomen,” is heard. The paintings are by Olaf Wieghorst, a Danish-born painter of the American west, whose works recall the great western painters of the late 19th century and early 20th century, Frederic Remington and Charles Russell. I was able to get screen grabs of them without the credits and they’re quite spectacular:

 

Here’s how they look with credits added:

 

Artist Wieghorst, credited at the top of the above card, actually appears in the film as a gunsmith, Swede Larson, who is called upon by Wayne to provide a gun to his young companion, James Caan, a knife-thrower who can’t shoot. So Swede gives him a sawed-off shotgun that will hit anything in short range once you point it in the right direction. It’s an amusing scene because Swede gets to tell the story of fate of the gun’s previous owner: “The fellow who used it before he couldn’t see too good. He yust shoot where he hears somebody talk.” Eventually, a saloon pianist’s loud playing so annoyed the fellow that he aimed at the source of the noise and shot and…“they hung him.”

One thing that puzzled me when I watched the film this time was the profession of Maudie (Charlene Holt), the woman who helps out both Wayne and Mitchum throughout the film and evidently has some history with both and behaves with an easy familiarity and casual intimacy with both. She’s well-dressed throughout so she’s clearly prosperous. She lives alone in a big house outside of town. She’s dressed provocatively in one scene where she’s surprised by Wayne’s sudden visit after many months away.


There are “working girls” in the town but we never see a brothel. At one point, a girl comes with a message for Wayne from Maudie and she tells him, “all the girls are scared.” The fact that Maudie sent her would indicate that “all the girls” are working for Maudie. Is Maudie a Madame?

At some point we see a working girl named Maria smoking a cigarette at a window in an alley at night as Wayne, Mitchum and Caan are stalking some would-be assassins. She beckons Caan and tells him where the culprits are hiding. Is she working at the unseen brothel? Seems so. Is she working for Maudie? Not sure.

The only saloon we see in town is owned by the lead villain, landowner Bart Jason (Ed Asner), the one who is jailed by Mitchum after an attempted murder of a rival rancher. In all the scenes in that saloon, we never see a woman, “working” or otherwise. So the working girls in town are clearly not working for Jason.

If anyone can enlighten me on this, I’d appreciate it. I have the book, “The Stars in Their Courses,” by Harry Brown, on which this film is based somewhere in storage so I may have to dig it out and finally read it to see if it sheds light on the question of Maudie’s employment.

 

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