Jeff Chandler Centennial

15 Dec

Jeff Chandler would have turned 100 today, December 15, 2018. He died an untimely death in 1961 at the age of 42 after a back operation left him with blood poisoning, right after coming home from finishing his last film, a WWII movie shot in the Philippines called MERRILL’S MARAUDERS, which would be released a year after he died. Directed by Samuel Fuller and based on a true story, it was one of Chandler’s best films.

As a leading man under contract to Universal Pictures, Chandler occupied a unique position in the 1950s, the decade in which he did most of his major work. Tall, athletic, rugged and boasting sharp, protruding features—square jaw, dimpled chin, thick curling lips, long straight nose, high cheekbones, piercing eyes, dark, bushy eyebrows, and prematurely graying hair—Chandler found himself playing unsmiling officers, tribal chiefs and authority figures of various sorts in a wide range of genres, notably westerns, historical adventures, war movies, swashbucklers, and romantic melodramas. As an actor, he had a limited range, one he voluntarily adhered to, but did wonders within that range. As far as I can tell, he played a genuine villain only once—in the 1959 western, THE JAYHAWKERS, in which the hero was played by Fess Parker, TV’s Davy Crockett.

Chandler’s movies were a staple of late-night broadcast television back in the 1970s and ‘80s, which is where I saw most of his movies and enjoyed pretty much all of them. A Brooklyn Jew who grew up with Susan Hayward, with whom he starred in THUNDER IN THE SUN, Chandler’s distinct features lent themselves to the occasional “exotic” role. He played a Bedouin chief in FLAME OF ARABY (1951), opposite Maureen O’Hara, as an Arab princess (below) and a Polynesian chief in Hawaii in BIRD OF PARADISE (1951).

His breakout role was as Apache leader Cochise in the 1950 western, BROKEN ARROW, opposite James Stewart. It garnered him his only Oscar nomination and became a role he would return to twice, once in full co-starring mode in the prequel, BATTLE AT APACHE PASS (1952), and once in a cameo in which he passes the baton to his son, TAZA, SON OF COCHISE (1954), played by Rock Hudson.

Chandler’s quite good in BROKEN ARROW, playing Cochise as a formidable figure, uniter of scattered Apache tribes and hated enemy of the white men of Arizona, who have declared war on the Apache, a war Cochise fights in return ruthlessly and relentlessly until an army scout, Tom Jeffords (Stewart), convinces him to agree to a tentative peace. Cochise and Jeffords become friends, blood brothers, and Cochise resolves to keep the peace even after Geronimo (Jay Silverheels) and his allies have broken away and resumed war on the whites and, later, even after whites have tried to kill him and Tom himself has broken down in grief after his new Indian wife (Debra Paget) is killed in the attempt. Yes, one can argue that the film might have been more effective in its pro-Indian social comment if the two lead Apache characters weren’t played by whites, but at least all the other Apaches in the cast are played by Apaches or other Native American actors. And I found Chandler quite convincing. Apparently, Academy voters thought so, too, and nominated him in the Best Supporting Actor category, which he lost to George Sanders in ALL ABOUT EVE.

Chandler’s always been fun to watch. No matter what the role, he played it with conviction and confidence and plunged into the action parts with vigor and resolution, whether running, riding a horse, fist-fighting, boxing, swordfighting, shooting bad guys, overpowering enemy guards or engaged in combat with such designated opponents as Arabs, Indians, Germans or Japanese, or in the case of BROKEN ARROW, the U.S. Army. And when romancing his leading ladies, he could turn on the charm with equal conviction.

One of my favorite films of Chandler’s is YANKEE PASHA (1954), in which he plays an American frontiersman in 1805 who finds himself in full Arabian Nights mode in a Middle Eastern kingdom searching for the girl he loves after she’s been abducted by pirates in mid-Atlantic and sold into the harem of an Arabian sheik. It’s got a bizarre juxtaposition of popular genres of the time—think Davy Crockett Meets Sinbad–and the highlight is a catfight between leading lady Rhonda Fleming and harem girl Mamie Van Doren.

Another favorite is SIGN OF THE PAGAN (1954), a mini-epic about the waning years of the Roman Empire when Attila the Hun (Jack Palance) came close to conquering Rome. Chandler had balked at playing Attila, not wanting to sully his good-guy movie-star image, and played his Roman opposite, a centurion named Marcian, basically ceding the movie to Palance’s more ferocious, scenery-chewing performance.

It was the second of two films Chandler appeared in that were directed by Douglas Sirk (the other was TAZA, SON OF COCHISE). He would co-star with Palance again when the two of them played German soldiers ordered to locate and defuse unexploded bombs by Occupation forces in Germany in Robert Aldrich’s underrated drama, TEN SECONDS TO HELL (1959), another film dominated by Palance.

Chandler got to emote more than usual in FOXFIRE (1955), a melodrama in which he plays a half-Indian mining engineer in the contemporary Southwest who marries a white woman, played by Jane Russell, and then has second thoughts. It’s been years since I’ve seen it, but I remember that it was a rare instance of one of his characters displaying vulnerability.

Another film of Chandler’s I like a great deal is RED BALL EXPRESS (1952), the only Hollywood film to chronicle the World War II exploits of the integrated army unit of the title which was assigned to supply gasoline to the tanks making inroads into Nazi-occupied Europe in the frenzied days after D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge. Chandler plays the commander of the unit and has to tamp down the racial tension that erupts when white soldiers and black soldiers suddenly have to work together. Sidney Poitier co-stars and one can see a star in the making.

Chandler did not make any cult films or many bonafide classics. He worked for notable directors only occasionally, among them Robert Wise (TWO FLAGS WEST), Delmer Daves (BROKEN ARROW), Budd Boetticher (RED BALL EXPRESS), Jack Arnold (MAN IN THE SHADOW) and the aforementioned Sam Fuller, Robert Aldrich and Douglas Sirk.

Fuller’s MERRILL’S MARAUDERS (1962) is worth singling out because it’s one of the few films that captures the exhaustion of waging war. It focuses on the mission of a volunteer unit of 3000 Americans, led by General Frank Merrill (Chandler), to break through the Japanese lines in Burma in 1944. General Merrill himself is brought down by a heart attack, as happened in real life, so one of his men (Ty Hardin) has to force himself to keep going to set an example for the others. I haven’t seen it in a long time, so I can’t cite specific instances of Chandler’s portrayal, but it’s easily one of his best performances.

In his autobiography, A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking, Sam Fuller writes about Chandler and the film:

Between takes, Jeff used to throw a football around with other actors and some of the air force officers. Chandler was a good athlete, good enough to be offered a job in professional football when he was younger. However, he had a bad back, having injured it on a movie set years before, and he had suffered from it ever since. Our seven-week shoot was strenuous, but Chandler never complained about his back, or anything else. He was a real trooper. During one of the scenes we shot in a hot, humid jungle, however, Jeff fainted. An army helicopter flew him back to Clark. He was fine after a day off and finished the film without any further health problems. However, when he returned to California after shooting with us in the Philippines, Chandler decided to have surgery on his back. Inexplicably, he died in the hospital, apparently from blood poisoning. His death, at age forty-two, was deemed malpractice and resulted in a large lawsuit and settlement for his children. I was sick when I heard the news, just sick.

The only films of Chandler’s that I have on DVD are YANKEE BUCCANEER (1952) and WAR ARROW (1953), both of which I re-watched for this piece (along with Broken Arrow, which ran on TCM today).

YANKEE BUCCANEER offers a clever tale of an American navy ship that has to go undercover in order to track down the headquarters of pirate ships in the Caribbean in the early 1800s. Things get complicated when they reluctantly take a passenger, a Portuguese countess (Suzan Ball) trying to protect a colony in Brazil from being targeted by the Portuguese navy. Chandler, as the strict disciplinarian captain of the American ship, finds he has to stop playing by the book and take on the Spanish, who turn out to be protectors of the pirates, in a rousing finale. Chandler’s co-stars include Scott Brady and Suzan Ball.

WAR ARROW focuses on a U.S. army fort in the American Southwest in the mid-1800s faced with a wave of attacks by the Kiowas. Chandler is a Major sent by Washington to try and persuade a bitter, relocated tribe of Seminole Indians to help the army fight the Kiowas. Chandler’s efforts to help the Seminoles, once they’ve joined his effort, are often blocked by the fort’s skeptical Colonel (John McIntire), who doesn’t trust the Seminoles. Chandler’s other co-stars include Maureen O’Hara, Henry Brandon and Dennis Weaver.

These and most other Chandler films were formula movies designed for double bills in neighborhood theaters and drive-ins and made economically, but with solid production values, usually filmed in Technicolor, and kept to short running times (average: 80 minutes), the kind of genre movie Hollywood ceded to television years ago but which viewers like me wish we could continue to see on movie screens.

Here are posters from several of Chandler’s movies in chronological order, just to demonstrate the range of movies he made:

One Response to “Jeff Chandler Centennial”

  1. Bill Baldwin December 15, 2018 at 11:32 PM #

    Thanks, Brian. Chandler was also a childhood favorite of mine. “Sign of the Pagan” and “Attila” were my best double-bill, at a 5th-run Catskill Mountains theatre in Monticello, New York, back in the summer of ’61. Reynold Brown’s great poster art for “Sign” inspired Joe Levine to a similar concept on his first “Joseph E. Levine presents” flick.

    I loved seeing the two Attila’s together again in the same arena for, “Barabbas”, a year or so later. Universal’s “Sign” kept “Attila” out of the US market in 1955, which is why Dino DeLaurentiis worked round-the-clock to beat Mike Todd to the punch in the title registry for “War & Peace”.

    P.S. It’s “Native American”, now. I think that’s a PC request we can all agree to. Columbus’ mistake can go to the grave with him.

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