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North to Alaska

North to Alaska
Fox Home Entertainment
1960 / color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 122 min. / Street Date June 3, 2003 / 19.98
Starring John Wayne, Stewart Granger, Ernie Kovacs, Fabian, Capucine, Mickey Shaughnessy, Karl Swenson, Joe Sawyer, Kathleen Freeman, John Qualen
Cinematography Leon Shamroy
Art Direction Duncan Cramer, Jack Martin Smith
Film Editor Dorothy Spencer
Second Unit Director Richard Talmadge
Original Music Lionel Newman
Written by Claude Binyon, John Lee Mahin, Martin Rackin from a play by Ladislas Fodor
Produced by Henry Hathaway, John Lee Mahin
Directed by Henry Hathaway

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

North to Alaska represents the first of John Wayne's 'relaxed' light comedies, that would come to dominate his work in the 60s and beyond. As a star in total control of his films, and no longer needing one of his top directors to have a hit, Wayne embarked on a decade of cheerful, fairly formless light entertainments that had only one constant, his character. Lazy writing and inbred direction (Andrew V. McLaglen) would quickly lead to the mediocrity of things like McClintock!, repeating Wayne's previous career highlights in leaden vehicles. The status quo was celebrated, Wayne could do no wrong, and über-colleen Maureen O'Hara would become an emotional, humiliated mess while learning subservience to big Duke.

This Henry Hathaway-produced comedy has its slow passages, but a strong farcical framework keeps it on task. Only the sillier slapstick, and Wayne's idea of sex humor, now seem to grate; unless one is constitutionally opposed to America's most popular star, North to Alaska is difficult to dislike.


Mining partners Sam McCord (John Wayne) and George Pratt (Stewart Granger) strike it rich in Alaska (about 3 miles from the beach, it seems), and Sam rushes off to Seattle to buy equipment and retrieve George's fiancee. Unfortunately, it's been three years and the woman has long given up on George and married someone else. Then Sam sees Michelle, a similar-looking prostitute (Capucine), and gets the idea of offering George a consolation prize. Michelle accompanies Sam back to Alaska, but falls in love with him, not her intended husband. All the elements of farce await them in the Gold Rush town - a disappointed, emotional George, his girl-crazy teenaged brother Billy (Fabian), claim jumpers, and the town's con-man cheat, Frankie Canon (Ernie Kovacs), who was once romantically and criminally involved in Michelle.

A cleaned-up frontier epic, North to Alaska has a host of writers, including the uncredited Ben Hecht and Wendell Mayes, behind its fairly straightforward script. 'Family values' whitewash what could be a fairly sordid affair if handled differently. Wayne boozes it up in a brothel - no 'dance-hall' here - behaving like a wayward member of the Rat Pack. Of course, all he seems to want is beautiful women to show their legs and drink with him. New Orleans pro Capucine is not only a hooker, but may have been pimped out by sleazy creep Ernie Kovacs, who she aided in some crooked confidence schemes. But the presence of the all-powerful, all-knowing Wayne naturally redeems any fallen woman, and the French whore proves to be a game gal itching for the freedom and promise of true love in a new land.

For a family film, Wayne spouts an unending series of anti-marriage, anti-woman statements, but we know that Capucine is going to find his soft spot, and all will work out, even if the big ox will still have derogatory remarks to make about the female sex. There isn't much room for anyone else to get a nose in, however. Ex-swashbuckler Stewart Granger never had any romantic wattage, and does fine as a hearty pal and mushy romantic who transforms into a good-sport matchmaker in act three. Fabian is embarassingly redundant as the horny kid, included as the token teen probably recommended by Wayne's managers. Ricky Nelson was considered a success in Rio Bravo, but Fabian comes in a poor third behind plucked-chicken no-talent Frankie Avalon (The Alamo), who could at least make a pretense of singing.

Teen idol Fabian is the clown of the piece. His impotent fumbling serves to make Wayne's 'mature' masculinity seem all the more valid. It might have been a fun digression: A professional call-girl has the experience to deftly handle all kinds of male come-ons, but is driven to distraction by the unstoppable libido of an obsessed boy. The script instead has her swat Billy away like a housefly.

Fitting in nicely is the total sleaze character played by Ernie Kovacs, a television sensation and creative genius who was soon to die in an auto accident. Kovacs tended to be cast as one kind of a creep or another, most notably in the Carol Reed/Graham Greene Our Man in Havana1 Here he ogles Capucine, in between attempts to swindle the heroes.

North to Alaska is long, and takes its time with just about everything. When it used to show on network television, frequent commercials seemed to double its running time. There's only one semi-serious gun battle against claim-jumpers, and two or three oversized barfights, the kind where hundreds of punches are exchanged and other mayhem is reduced to the level of Keystone Kops action. Here's where things get infantile, with Wayne crossing his eyes and making silly faces when hit. Audiences loved this Three Stooges stuff, and some of it is clever. Stuntwise, the only impressive moment is when Wayne, punched in the muddy street, slides under a bucking mule. Wayne (it's really his stuntman) receives a nasty kick, and the moment gets a big audience reaction. The silent-movie connection is no joke, as the second unit director is Richard Talmadge, a silent star since 1921, who restarted his career behind the camera with this film. The gags are very Mack Sennett-like. There's even a barking seal to applaud the fighting - a gag Talmadge injected into his later work in Casino Royale.

There's one lovely scene that pleases just for the fact that it seems to exist for its own sake. Before heading back to Alaska, Wayne takes Capucine to a Swedish picnic, where he wins a pole-climbing contest and gets stone drunk. The prissy Swedish wives are led by the wonderful Kathleen Freeman, who has to be poked and shouted at to accept Capucine's fallen woman, but afterwards is all smiles and acceptance. Capucine's willingness to put up with the insult is kind of a stretch, but there's an interesting simplicity to the rest of the scene: the scarlet woman is accepted for the day, case closed. Likewise, a rowdy former customer (Roy Jenson), once Wayne straightens him out with a right cross, looks after Capucine like a gentleman. The whole set-up is fake as hell, but attractively primitive, with a sort of silent-movie logic.

What North to Alaska most resembles is Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush, which tells a story of comic innocence against a much more realistic and harsh background of misery and treachery in the far North. Wayne's picture has a bit of the same charm, taking a technically sordid bunch of characters and using the Wayne Spirit to solve all their problems. Everything will work out in the end, folks. John Wayne tosses money left and right, constantly drinks, and resolves every conflict with a staggering but harmless punch to the nose. He was America's security blanket.

Unlike some of the later films, North to Alaska has hearty production values, that include an ordinary Southern California Beach tricked up with matte paintings to look like an Alaskan anchorage port, and L.B. Abbott's animated Aurora Borealis added to the night skies. The entire cast is attractive, even Fabian, and Henry Hathaway appears to be working harder than normal: the farce scenes have pep, and Wayne's comedy acting is excellent when he sinks into an uncomprehending funk over a girl he doesn't realize he loves.

Fox's DVD of North to Alaska looks great, with only the slightest hint of fading occurring in the night scenes, which aren't as richly blue as they were originally (those Northern Lights don't shimmer as attractively as they once did). The sound is fine, showcasing Johnny Horton's top ten hit title tune, that cleverly served as free cross-promotion for the movie.

The main attraction here is the opportunity to see the film in a big, clear widescreen image. Pan-scanned and chopped-up on television, this show was reduced to a grainy postage stamp.

The actress who plays Jenny, Granger's fiancee in one brief scene, is Lilyan Chauvin. She's had a steady career, lately appearing in small parts in both The Man Who Wasn't There and Catch Me If You Can.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, North to Alaska rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailers
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 30, 2003


1. Hey, Columbia, here's a great title for DVD - it's got Alec Guinness, spies, and it's the movie that served as the carbon-copy to make The Tailor of Panama.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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