Strother Martin Wednesday #9 True Grit

I’m proud to say that Strother Martin was a part of the film that finally won John Wayne a long overdue Academy Award. There are some who believe this was simply a sentimental make good for years of great work and that the performance itself was not particularly deserving. That hypothesis should disappear as you watch the movie and see the range of Wayne’s work in this story and the sincerity with which it was committed to the screen. In addition to the Duke, you will get a Strother Martin Performance that is limited to two scenes, but for which there is simply no comparison. Dakin Matthews is a prolific actor with an appropriately withered tone in the 2010 Coen Brothers version of Tue Grit, however his part, while effective lacks the sparkling humor that Strother provides here.

As you look at the opening credits above, you will see a heady list of actors in supporting roles in this Wayne vehicle. Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Jeff Corey should give you plenty of links for your next game of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”. Jeff Corey also appeared in another 1969 western that featured Strother Martin, the biggest box office hit of that year “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. We may get to that film on this summer project, where Strother was onscreen with both stars. In this film, all of his role is played against a single actor, Kim Darby, playing the young Mattie Ross.

In his opening introduction, Strother as Col. G. Stonehill, Licensed Horse Trader, he struts confidently down his porch stairs to the corral where Mattie is admiring the horses, and he begins a sales pitch, much like a car dealer does with folks who wander onto a car lot. He believes at this point that he has the upper hand. Oh how he is mistaken.

In an instant, he goes from an authority in a position of strength, to a victim of a sustained legal attack that he was clearly not anticipating. You can see the doubt creep into his expression immediately, beginning a process of advancing and retreating that will make up the nature of his exchange with Mattie for the rest of their scenes.

Basically, young Mattie is making demands of Coil. Stonehill, regarding the deal for horses that her dead father had made. She is also seeking compensation for the horse stolen by her father’s killer, which was being stabled at Col. Stonehill’s livery. The Colonel thinks his position is unassailable, but Mattie is not an ordinary 14 year old girl. She persists.

One of the differences between this version of the story and the one told by the Coen’s is that there is a transition from an exterior scene to an interior of the Colonel’s office. You can see the resignation on Jay’s face here as he chooses to retreat to the interior as a way of regaining the upper hand. It is not a successful strategy.

Retreating behind his desk must have seemed like a good idea, but you will notice from the actor’s expression, that the character has not found strength in the dominant territory he expected. The line readings at this point quietly thunder with the antipathy that Col. Stonehill feels toward the young woman who is getting the better of him.

Col. G. Stonehill: I’ll take it up with my attorney.

Mattie Ross: And I will take it up with mine – Lawyer Daggett. And he will make money and I will make money and your lawyer will make money… and you, Mr. Licensed Auctioneer, you will foot the bill.

After flummoxing the Colonel with her threats and negotiating skills, she produces the release document and puts it in his hand as he requested, and he knows he has been got the better of because she already had it prepared.

When she returns to complete their arrangement by picking up her father’s saddle, she reengages in an attempt to purchase one of the ponies that she has previously sold back to the horse trader. Upon her arrival he makes a comment that is incredibly funny in how it reveals his attitude toward her reappearance on his doorstep.

Colonel Stonehill: I just received word that a young girl fell head first down a fifty foot well on the Tolson Road. I thought perhaps it was you.

Mattie Ross: Do you know a Marshal Rooster Cogburn?

Col. G. Stonehill: Most people around here have heard of Rooster Cogburn and some people live to regret it. I would not be surprised to learn that he’s a relative of yours.

He gives her some advice that she feels she does not need and they conclude their business with him once again capitulating in complete surrender to her approach.

The film is not a comedy, but it does have some compelling comedic elements. The greatest amount of laughter to be had from the movie occurs in the few minutes that Jay is on screen.

This is the complete first scene, containing much of what I just described. Enjoy, don’t laugh too loud.
Closing Credits

This may be my favorite performance from Strother. If it is not his best it is his most entertaining, and it came in the year that he starred in three of the greatest Western ever made.

Strother Martin Wednesday #8 The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance

There are other versions of the song above that are available on YouTube, but they include clips that give away key information about the film, so I took the one that follows the song best but does not identify what happens. The song will give you enough of the story that you can follow along with these comments without having had to see the film.

“The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance”, as far as I can tell, is the first of the six films he made with John Wayne. He had already worked with Lee Marvin a couple of times, including an episode of the Twilight zone. Lee Marvin (Liberty Valance), Strother Martin (Floyd) and Lee Van Cleef (Reese) had all previously appeared together in The Twilight Zone: The Grave (1961), which aired on October 27, 1961.

Strother did not make the top ten in billing for this film, but you can see from the company he was keeping, that was no slight, rather it was a great cast of character actors who all got listed after title cards featuring the main stars of the film. I don’t see that he ever worked with Lee Van Cleef again, but as we have already seen, he did work with Lee Marvin again in “Pocket Money“.

If his character name Floyd is ever used in the film, it was just in the background, and I can’t remember hearing it. In this story he plays Lee Marvin’s toady, a psycho who seems to derive pleasure out of other’s suffering.

At one point, hard-drinking newspaper editor Dutton Peabody refers to the bad guys as “Liberty Valance and his Myrmidons.” The Myrmidons were figures of ancient Greek mythology, skilled warriors in Homer’s Iliad commanded by Achilles. Because they were known for their fierce loyalty to their leader, the term came to be used in pre-industrial Europe almost as “robots” would be today. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term has since come to mean “hired ruffian” or “a loyal follower, especially one who executes orders without question, protest, or pity–unquestioning followers.” (IMDB Trivia)

When we first meet the crew, you don’t see Strother’s face because the gang is masked, but his diminutive height and shifty eyes give him away. Later, when the gang arrives at the dinner house and takes over a table already occupied, you can see he is the number two man in Liberty Vallance’s crew, but he ends up being more noticeable for a couple of lines and his gleefully deranged expressions.

As we have explored before, his reaction expressions are priceless and one of the things that made him a valuable asset to film makers for the three decades he was active. The shot above is when he notices Jimmy Stewart in the café for the first time, after having participated in his beating during the hold up at the start of the story. A couple of minutes later, he gets kicked in the ass by John Wayne’s Tom Doniphon, and he comes up off the floor pissed but powerless.

Strother had worked in Westerns plenty of times, and in many of the TV shows he was cast in, he played the grungy miner, cowhand, or criminal. Floyd seems like a combination of those types, maybe lacking the dirty face of a lowly mule riding desert vagabond, but definitely not someone of status. His clothes mark him as the working stiff of the gang, nothing fancy that would compete with his peacock of a boss, Liberty.

The scene where Liberty and his gang tear up the newspaper office and beat Mr. Peabody the editor to near death, has Strother heaving and smiling and licking his lips at the sadistic treatment of the newsman. In an interview he did a short while before his death, Strother said that Director John Ford, recognized that Strother was playing a sex psychopath in his scenes and seemed to deeply approve of it.

Strother’s biggest moment in the film occurs at the delegate election meeting where he is the one who steps up and nominates Liberty Vallance to be a delegate to the state convention. It’s so funny when they take the vote of all the men attending the meeting, and Liberty manages to get only two votes.

The conclusion of the film begins with the death of Liberty Vallance and Floyd calling for the Doctor as Liberty lays in the street.

It seems Floyd is the only one who truly morns Liberty’s death. Strother gets a another scene right after this where he and Reese (Van Cleef) are insisting that Stewart’s Rance Stoddard be lynched for killing Vallance.

Tom Doniphon, who knows what really happened and is devastated by the effect it will have on his romantic life, shuts the two of them up and tosses Floyd out the barroom doors. The last we see of Strother is him crawling on the street.

Once again Strother was not the star in billing, but he was when it came to acting and making an impression.

No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

Strother Martin Wednesday #7 The Champ

Strother had four features and a TV movie released in 1979, this was near the end of his career and unfortunately his life. 1980 held only two minor features and his appearance on Saturday Night Live. “The Champ” was a pretty successful film financially, but Strother is a very minor part of the story.

His name was enough to earn him a co-starring title card, but the role barely registers as part of the events depicted in the story. His character is Riley, a horse trainer at the track where Billy Flynn (Jon Voight) and his son T.J. (Ricky Schroder), live and work. His most engaging scene is right at the start of the film where we learn that Voigt was a former boxing champion, while he and Strother walk through the training yard.

They reminisce about Billy Flynn’s career for about thirty seconds. So he does not have much screen time but you can see the charisma on the screen as he steals the scene from the star, before almost disappearing from the film.

The film is a remake of the 1931 classic that won Wallace Berry the Academy Award for Best Actor. The character here has been out of boxing for seven years, and coincidentally, his son is eight and his wife has supposedly been dead the whole time. In the course of the melodrama, we learn about the Mom and sad career that Flynn left for booze and gambling. When you watch the story play out, it is a wonder that anyone has any sympathy for the negligent Billy, who forces his child to play nursemaid to a drunck who won’t keep his promises.

We maybe start to have a change of heart when after a drunk, and a lucky run at the craps table, Billy buys T.J. his own horse, that they plan on racing at the Miami track. Jay has no lines here, he just gets upstaged by the horse as he brings it out as a surprise for T.J.

Although there are several more scenes set at the racetrack, we don’t encounter Riley again in those environments. I suspect there were scenes that were cut for time and my guess is that Strother would have been in a couple of those.

Faye Dunaway shows up in the film and she turns out to have a “surprise” relationship to the father and son team [Do you think you can guess?] There are then a whole series of events that go back and forth between Voight and Dunaway, with Ricky Schroder as the ping pong ball. When Billy risks the horse that belongs to T.J. on a gambling debt, you will really wonder why we are supposed to root for the character.

Ultimately, Voight decides that to provide for his kid better than he has done, he is going to make a boxing comeback. Elisha Cook Jr. and Jack Warden play characters in this part of the story, and I was prepared for Strother to be excluded from the film at that point, but low and behold, in the climactic boxing match, Strother shows up and he is there for the close of the film as well.

Jay shows up in the audience at the boxing match, and once again shows how good reactions are good acting. He has no lines, and just a few inserts but his facial expressions tell you how the match is going at any given point.

SPOILER AHEAD

If you are unfamiliar with the story and want to see the movie without having the end given away. Stop reading here;

Strother Martin Wednesday #6 Pocket Money

So we are halfway through the 12 entries I committed to for the Summer with this post, and we have our first repeat co-star with Strother, Paul Newman. Most of you know that Jay was in at least six films that starred Newman, he was in a like number with John Wayne. Strother also worked with Lee Marvin several times and this is an entry that put the three of them together.

Newman plays an amiable cowboy type, trying to scrape together a living trading horses and cattle at the margins of the Southern border. A contemporary film (at least for 1970), the world of horses and cattle is different from what you might have seen in a traditional western, but there were still snakes in the story and Strother gets to play one of them.

Strother is Bill Garret, a cattle broker with a shady reputation who is working with middle-man Stretch Russell, played by Wayne Rogers. Stretch is hooking up Newman’s Jim Kane with Garrett to arrange a deal for cattle to be used in rodeos, a market Kane know next to nothing about. Rogers, Strother and Newman were all in “Cool Hand Luke” back in 1967, directed by the man who also directed this film, Stuart Rosenberg.

Jim has been warned by his Uncle to stay out of the deal because Garrett is known as a slick operator, but Kane has committed his life to following his first instincts and decides the job is probably worth it. He felt OK with Garrett and decides to trust him. He is a little cautionary however as the deal is being struck, and the following exchange takes place:

Jim Kane: Boy, if anybody cheats me, I’m gonna hit him with a Stillson wrench and shove him in a coal hopper

Bill Garrett: [chokes on his scotch-on-the-rocks] Well, if you’re gonna talk like that…

Jim Kane: Hmm?

Bill Garrett: [nervously; shuffling away a bit more] Well, if, ah, if you’re gonna talk like that, I’m, I’m-a just gonna move down the line.

I’ve heard it said that acting is really reacting, and Strother is a master of the reaction shot as you can see in the above image. Suddenly he goes from the confident business man with all the answers to a squirming suspect, defensively counter attacking as a way to get out of an uncomfortable situation. Still they proceed with their arrangement, conducting business in Garrett’s Cadillac.

Garrett proudly shows off his money-belt as he and Kane agree to the arrangement in his mobile office. It is an odd character moment, but it does increase the curious nature of Jay’s character. As is often the case in his roles, Strother’s character has an inflated opinion of himself, but he regularly reveals his insecurities in moments like this. At the end of the story, the knowledge that Bill Garrett keeps a stash in a money-belt becomes a point of action in the story.

For at least the third time in this summer blog series, Strother Martin appears in the opening and closing acts of the film only. Most of the movie takes place in Mexico, where Kane connects with his old friend Leonard, and the two of them try to acquire the cattle and move them North, while encountering the exotic business practices of another culture. Hector Elizondo appears in this sequence as a Mexican businessman that the two encounter. Leonard thinks he understands it all, but he frequently gets it wrong, and Kane just does what he thinks is right, but that does not always go down well in this world.

When the problems pile up high on the trail, and the cattle end up quarantined, just as a herd of horses that Kane had brought up from Mexico before the deal, Kane has to go looking for Stretch and Garrett to make amends with his expenses. This is where it gets around to the slippery nature of the characters. Neither has outright lied to Kane, they instead use their professional relationship as a shield to try and indemnify themselves from the bad luck. Newman is having none of it and he and Leonard start to play it a little rough to get satisfaction.

Garrett tries to pass it off as the tough luck that everyone has now and then, but his brush off does not deter Kane from pursuing him. In a confrontation in a hotel room, the four principles all face off with one another in what is certainly a moment of great star power.

Kane tries to keep it simple,…”You owe me money!” A little rough housing occurs and Newman ends up straddling Jay on the floor, looking for the money-belt and the $517 he feels is still owed to him.

Garret is a master of passive-aggression, he deigns himself as the wronged party. He wonders who Marvin’s character is and why he is being physically abused.

Jim and Leonard never get their money, and they spend what is left of the film, visualizing how they might have gotten some revenge on Garrett, but it is all talk. There is really not much to the plot, there is no real resoulution and no moral to the story. This is simply a shaggy dog story about a group of losers, tring to make due with the schemes they come up with. No one is really evil, even Jay’s character is just craven, not dangerous or cruel. He is just looking out for himself and that’s what everyone in the film is doing, but not very well.

Strother does not get a title credit, heck only Newman, Marvin and the Film Title are listed at the start of the movie. Strother and Wayne Rogers shared a frame during the end credits, and that makes Jay the third lead. The second frame here is a little unique, it does list Strother as a Co-Star and this frame is from the trailer, so there must have been some cashet to his name.