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This MGM release is a well-remembered small-scale show from 1964. Westerns without big action or big stars were starting to look rather ragged around the edges, but Mail Order Bride displays admirable qualities missed by John Wayne and Co.. Its wholesome, traditional message is certainly welcome, even if writer-director Burt Kennedy doesn't quite raise the proceedings to a classic level.
What's especially fascinating about Mail Order Bride is its relationship to a previous, almost unanimously revered, western from the same producer, 1962's Ride the High Country. That sleeper hit is still one of Sam Peckinpah's most popular films, even though the famous writer-director is not responsible for its basic tone or theme. Mail Order Bride is so similar that it can't be anything other than an attempt to recapture High Country's elusive genius.
Old-timer Will Lane (Buddy Ebsen) has been left a tough job in the legacy of a dear friend: to help his wayward son Lee Carey (Kier Dullea) mend his ways and settle into a decent life. A wild gambler and woman-chaser, Lee pays no attention until he learns that his father has deeded his Montana ranch to Will, which he'll only give to Lee when he thinks he's ready for it. Will finds a "Monkey Ward" mail order wife for Lee, and goes personally to retrieve her. 1 She turns out to be Annie Boley (Lois Nettleton), a widow with a small boy, and she unfortunately thinks that Lee might actually want her. Forced into marriage to keep his ranch, Lee makes a deal with Annie -- if she'll pretend to get along with him, he'll make sure she's compensated after Will hands over the deed. Lee continues to carouse with his buddies while going through the motions of building a house. Annie hopes he'll change his mind, while Will begins to realize the deception. Lee is foolishly allowing his unreliable best friend Jace (Warren Oates) to steal cattle from the ranch to finance their binges ... and the cattle technically belongs to Will.
The similarities between Mail Order Bride and Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country are more than superficial. Both movies are about older frontiersmen passing on their values to the next generation, but Bride is less subtle about it. Lois Nettleton's Annie seems to have been cast for her similarity to Ride's Mariette Hartley, and if she isn't wearing the wedding dress from that movie, it's an exact copy. Although Bride is filmed entirely on location and Ride had to come back to the Los Angeles area for budgetary reasons, Bride's director Kennedy copies Sam Peckinpah's use of landscape. A view of lonely mountaintop is repeated as a cutting motif, and various through the countryside horse-riding transitions are filmed and edited as in the Peckinpah movie.
Will Lane quietly shows Lee Carey up as a callow fool, just as Joel McCrea does Ron Starr in the earlier film. Warren Oates repeats from the first movie as a dishonest ne'er-do-well. The brothel in Ride and the sporting house in Bride are both called "Kate's Place". Finally, Mail Order Bride re-uses about 50% of George Bassman's Ride the High Country music score, mostly in action scenes. Lee's horse flounders in a creek with the same cue used at the Hammond camp in Ride, and when Lee and Will walk to their final showdown (just like McCrea and Randolph Scott in Ride) an almost identical music cue is used there as well.
In other words, it's clear that producer Richard E. Lyon's aim was to make Mail Order Bride just like Ride the High Country, only different.
The close kinship between the two movies should raise some questions, among confirmed western fans. Ride the High Country seems much less cynical than Sam Peckinpah's other movies; even his earlier The Deadly Companions is much more fatalistic. The critical success of Ride catapulted Peckinpah into a big budget epic, for which he was apparently unprepared. He'd so far worked on a movie for the star Maureen O'Hara, with whom he clashed to the detriment of the film. Ride the High Country benefited from a solid studio production and the collaboration of the very artistic cinematographer Lucien Ballard, who worked again with Peckinpah on The Wild Bunch, his best movie. Frankly, Peckinpah's strengths are his writing and direction of actor. Few of his movies have visuals that come anywhere near the quality of the two Ballard pictures. A lot of Major Dundee is undistinguished, and The Deadly Companions suffers from poor camera blocking. In Mail Order Bride Burt Kennedy tries to give his scenes a classic look, but even with the talented Paul Vogel behind the camera, much of the film just looks like pretty pictures.
Mail Order Bride isn't as insightful as Ride the High Country but it still has plenty of heart. Although Kennedy contributed wonderfully tense scripts to four of the best Budd Boetticher / Randolph Scott westerns his dialogue here is mostly functional. Buddy Ebsen (on hiatus from TV's The Beverly Hillbillies) is fine as the pragmatic, ethical Will Lane; he'd fit in quite well with Ride's Steven Judd and Gil Westrum. But Kennedy misses the boat with the young 'uns. Lois Nettleton is perfectly cast as the hopeful, strong Annie, but the script gives her nothing. She's not a virginal innocent like Elsa Knudson from the first film, and she remains silent as the men-folk debate the future and her fate. Not that Annie has to be 70s-assertive, but just for the sake of her self-respect it seems that she needs to haul off and give the idiot Lee a piece of her mind at some point in the conflict. She accepts him passively throughout.
Kier Dullea is unfortunately the weak link, and not because of any fault in his acting. His Lee is far too clean-cut to be credible as a hellion. Lee is a creampuff in all situations, even when visiting his prostitute girlfriend Marietta (played with a pragmatic flourish by Barbara Luna). When Warren Oates' Jace swindles Lee, the boy comes off as a fool. The script has some pointers in the direction of growing feelings between Lee and Annie, but doesn't develop them. They grow together as an automatic consequence of obvious crisis points, mainly the burning of the new house and the threat to Annie's boy. When Lee reforms, it doesn't feel right -- neither does his sudden transformation into a resolute man of integrity, standing side-by-side with Will.
Mail Order Bride most sorely lacks the wonderful dialogue polish that Sam Peckinpah gave to Ride, those authentic-sounding mountain frontier phrases that make Peckinpah's characters come alive. The talented Buddy Ebsen compensates with a warm, sincere performance, and the basic story is appealing enough. We want to care about the people in Mail Order Bride, which makes it a successful show.
When it comes down to details, Mail Order Bride sets up a story begging for special insight, and delivers a safe message. Our elders always know what's right. Young punks need to wise up, cut their hair and marry sensible women. There's none of the moral ambiguity of Ride the High Country, which admits to a gray area between good and evil, and doesn't insist that Steve Judd's noble philosophy necessarily applies to anyone else. Most importantly, Steve Judd and Gil Westrum taught by example, whereas Will Lane forces Lee Carey's reformation every step of the way. The only way out of that situation is for Lee to prove that he's a better man on his own terms, and that doesn't happen. We take our western morality seriously here at DVD Savant.
Mail Order Bride is a relaxing, thoughtful western. The Buddy Ebsen material is 100% successful. His middle-aged cowpoke visits four potential mail order brides in a nicely handled sequence. Saucy hooker Diane Sayer doesn't take his offer seriously. Our favorite Kathleen Freeman is given a respectful bit that doesn't make fun of her appearance -- she turns Will down because he's not suitable to join her in the Salvation Army. Although it's a brief bit, the wonderful Marie Windsor strikes a nerve - she is looking for a man and is disappointed to learn that the kindly Will isn't the potential groom. Windsor is too old for a boy but perfect for the middle-aged Will.
Western and action fans will enjoy spotting Paul Fix, Denver Pyle and a young William Smith in small parts. Mail Order Bride is a much-requested, entertaining favorite.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Mail Order Bride is a beauty, indistinguishable from a factory disc in transfer quality. Colors are bright and only a few optical transitions change hue across splices. The enhanced 16x9 picture shows off the picture's mountain scenery and the clear track flatters George Bassman's re-purposed score.
No trailer is provided.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Mail Order Bride rates:
1. For younger readers, and maybe foreign readers, "Monkey Ward" is a nickname for the Montgomery Ward Company, which circulated fat mail order catalogs. So did Sears, Roebuck & Co., affectionately known as "Sears and Sawbuck" -- a sawbuck being a ten-dollar bill. Every Fall we'd wait for the big Xmas catalogs to come in from these companies and a back-East outfit called Spiegel. Being a totally unhinged little suburban materialist, I'd circle practically everything in the catlalogs' fat toy pages, and make absurdly long lists of what I wanted.
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