Adventures on Criterion: Snow Westerns and The Secret of Convict Lake

The other December series on Criterion Channel that interested me (besides Screwball Comedies) was Snow Westerns, which predictably features westerns set at wintertime and/or high in the mountains with lots of snow. It’s a neat and unexpected feature to structure programming around, and I am here for it. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) was my first thought when seeing the topic, and sure enough, that one’s here and a must-see. Another personal favorite in this series is Ride the High Country (1962), which deals with one of my favorite sub-genres of westerns (not snow, though there’s that as well) – the aging cowboy and the passing of the old West as civilization takes over. The Far Country (1955) is one of the best of the James Stewart-Anthony Mann collaborations, and they’re all good. Beyond those, there are a lot of new-to-me films to catch up with here, though I may stop short of watching Ravenous (1999), described as a “cannibal comedy”.

I started with the earliest film on the list, which is a typical move for me as I go through these series – I will read all the plot descriptions to choose based on interest, but frequently they all sound interesting and I just default to chronological order. That put 1951’s The Secret of Convict Lake first up. I had never heard of this, but a western with Glenn Ford and Gene Tierney interested me immediately. Ford is an escaped convict who managed to get across the Sierra Nevadas from Carson City along with five other convicts – he leads them to a small settlement on Lake Monte Diablo; they think he’s leading them there because he has stashed $40,000 from a robbery there. In fact, he was framed for the robbery and he’s going to kill the man who framed him. But when they get there, the men have all gone silver prospecting and the settlement is 100% women, another plot detail that interested me greatly (women alone in the west fascinates me as a plot point; see Westward the Women).

Additional plot twist: lovely Gene Tierney is the fiancee of the man who framed Ford. Now, you may ask, as I did, how are the top-billed big star actor and actress going to become each other’s love interests, as you assume they will, if she’s in love with the man he’s sworn to kill? The writers work it out, trust me. The film is intense in a lot of different ways, as there are lots of dangers here. Also, there’s a great late role for the iconic Ethel Barrymore as the matriarch of the settlement. She may be bedridden for most of the film, but she has a force of character that towers over everything. She’s frail-bodied, but she is definitely iron-willed.

The voiceover at the end of the film claims it’s a true story, and that Lake Monte Diablo was renamed Convict Lake due to this incident. Of course I had to look that up immediately. There is a grain of truth in it – there is a Convict Lake in California (near Mammoth) and it was named that due to a posse catching up with a bunch (like 30) escaped Carson City convicts near that lake, in a creek named Monte Diablo. The female-only settlement, the robbery frame-up, the love story – no sign of any of that in history. I’ll go on the record saying I’m glad the film added those elements. Historical verisimilitude is overrated in many cases.

Getting through it

Apparently the language leaders in Japan have identifiedtaipa” as the word of the year in 2022.

Taipa is used for talking about efficient use of time, and is particularly associated with the members of Generation Z, born roughly between 1995 and 2010. In search of optimum “time performance,” they might watch films and drama at double speed or via recut versions that only show major plot points, and skip to the catchy parts of songs.

I fully agree with Alan Jacobs here. If the only point is to get through as much content as possible, what is the point of experiencing that content in the first place? You’re not using your time efficiently, you’re wasting your time. Maybe you’re only wasting half as much time, but it’s still wasted time.

Still, it must be said: taipa isn’t “efficient use of time.” Instead, it’s about the worstuse of one’s time, especially one’s leisure time, that I can imagine. There are no canons of “efficiency” that apply here unless you think that there’s some kind of value in watching more movies and listening to more music, regardless of quality or interest. And if you think that you’re nuts — as I have recently suggested. As I said in that post: If you’re accelerating the rate at which you listen and watch, what are you trying to get to?

And yet I am convicted, as I have literally said “we need to get through this” TO STUDENTS in my classroom when we get behind, and that reinforces the exact opposite way of relating to literature than I want them to have. We do have a great plan for the year and it does require “getting through” a certain amount of text per week or we’re not going to get to everything. But as good and important as everything planned is, I must change how I talk about it.

We just started The Brothers Karamazov (which I’m swiftly becoming convinced may in fact be the greatest novel ever written) and I’ve been more than idly thinking a good year-long class plan would actually be to read Brothers K…and then read Brothers K again. What are we getting to by getting through it? Reading it again. I don’t think my school would let me do this, but I’m hanging on to the idea anyway.

Adventures on Criterion: Screwballs

Trying to make full use of my Criterion Channel subscription (the best streaming option out there if you like classic and arthouse films), I’ve been spending most of my moviewatching time lately letting Criterion be my guide. Usually they add two or three new programming blocks each month with different focuses – this month they’re Screwball Comedies, Snow Westerns, and Sight & Sound’s Greatest Films. Those features are available for a couple of months and then they cycle off. It’s great for catching up on lesser-known films or picking up some blind spots.

At a different stage of my life I might be devouring the Sight & Sound collection, but I find that right now, all I really want are Hollywood classics – reverting to my childhood upbringing? Perhaps. Anyway. This means I’ve been bingeing the few remaining Screwball classics I hadn’t already seen (and to be honest I may rewatch some old favorites before the month is out!) and I also plan to check out several of the Snow Westerns. I figured I’d post about what I’ve been watching.

This is an almost ridiculously great set of movies here, filled out with some absolute obscurities, which is the best kind of programming the Criterion Channel does. Fill in must-see gaps, rewatch old favorites, and check out something I’ve never heard of? Sign me up.

If you’re new to the world of screwball comedies, just know this – they are madcap comedies usually featuring a battle of the sexes, with some of the wittiest dialogue, zaniest plots, and most interesting characters (especially women characters) in the classic era. There are some absolute must-sees in this programming, like It Happened One Night (1934), The Awful Truth (1937), His Girl Friday (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), Ball of Fire (1941), Sullivan’s Travels (1941), and To Be or Not to Be (1943). Second tier perhaps but still great if you love screwballs: Twentieth Century (1934), Theodora Goes Wild (1936), Easy Living (1937), Holiday (1938), Midnight (1939), The Palm Beach Story (1942), The More the Merrier (1943), Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), and Hail the Conquering Hero (1944). Of course fans will argue with my placement there, and I might argue with myself.

But for me, I’m going for the obscurities – so the past couple of weeks I’ve already watched three that I hadn’t even heard of before now, and I enjoyed all three!

Love is News (1937)

In this Tay Garnett-directed comedy, Tyrone Power is a hotshot reporter whose failing paper was just taken over by his former friend current antagonist Don Ameche – they have an ongoing love-hate relationship throughout the film. The screwball comes in when Ty attempts to nail the story of an heiress ditching her titled fiancé. The heiress (played by Loretta Young) is tired of newspapermen hounding her, and especially tired of Ty personally, as he’s misrepresented her before in published interviews. She takes the unlikely step of telling all the OTHER newspapermen that she’s engaged to Ty, which puts him in the limelight and gives him a taste of his own medicine. This leads to lots of sparring and also obviously them falling in love for real. Some fun people show up in supporting roles, notably a disgruntled George Sanders as the dumped fiancé, who is kind of a heel. There are elements of Libeled Lady (1936), His Girl Friday (1940), and It Happened One Night (1934) in here – it’s not as good as any of those, but it’s plenty of fun.

Murder, He Says (1945)

So it’s kind of like Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) crossed with The Cat and the Canary (1929) except instead of kindly old Aunts in Brooklyn, it’s ornery hillbillies in the Ozarks. Fred MacMurray is the hapless guy here, a pollster looking for a colleague who disappeared a few weeks back, only to find himself stuck in the backwoods with a family who’ll do anything they can to get their hands on the fortune stolen and hidden by cousin Bonnie, currently away in state prison. The family becomes convinced MacMurray is Bonnie’s boyfriend, which becomes more convoluted when Bonnie shows up, except it ain’t Bonnie, it’s a sweet young girl who needs to find the money to exonerate her father, an innocent implicated in the robbery. Yes, the plot is complicated, and it’s a pretty black comedy at times, but it ultimately does build in hilarity as the real Bonnie turns up and everything escalates beyond belief. Honestly, I had such a great time with this, I have no idea why I’d never heard of it before. Deserves more of an audience!

You Never Can Tell (1951)

Okay, as soon as I read Criterion’s plot description of this thing I knew I had to watch it. Here’s the short version. A millionaire leaves his fortune to his dog King when he dies, an odd but not particularly unheard of occurrence. But then King is poisoned. And then he goes to Beastatory – like Purgatory for animals. King requests to return to earth to solve his murder, and the leader of Beastatory (a lion, of course), agrees that he can return for three days as a human private detective (played by Dick Powell!) to give it a try. Actually, sorry, he’s a “humanimal.” He’s accompanied by a horse who returns as one of those pert private eye secretary types but she wears a hat with horse ears, carries a purse shaped like a feedbag, and can outrun buses. The detective, Rex Shepherd (King is a German Shepherd) also snacks on kibble. It’s seriously bizarre. Beastatory is depicted in the weirdest golden bass relief visuals; it’s seriously kind of terrifying. I have no idea who this movie is FOR. It’s silly enough to be for kids, but also too bizarre and sometimes scary. That said, I…quite enjoyed it. So apparently it’s a movie for me. People who like bizarre and ridiculous things. So yeah.


I mean, I would actually argue that “Did the student reach a state of aporia” meets the criteria as both specific and measurable. Putting it in my lesson plans.

Rock Climbing

What they think they’re doing: Having a ton of fun clambering around on giant rocks.

What I see them doing: Developing competence and independence, learning and testing their physical limits, problem solving to find the best routes up and down, figuring out alternates when their chosen pathway gets too hard, discovering they can in fact get down that slope themselves even if they have to slide down on their bottoms, helping each other and making sure they both make it up and down. And also having a ton of fun clambering around on giant rocks!

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