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.

Rooster Cogburn (1975)

Some sequels are simply not needed. The original “True Grit” was a success in 1969, and it won John Wayne a long overdue Academy Award. Six years later, his character from that film is revived, for one purpose only, to give two stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood, an opportunity to work together. Although many other actors were considered in case John Wayne was incapable or a younger actress was available, the only reason to see this movie is the lone pairing of these two great stars.

The movie turns into a loose remake of “The African Queen” with Wayne in the Bogart role. While most of the film takes place on dry land in the old west, there is a sequence on a boat and that is where our featured actor appears. Strother plays “Shanghai McCoy” a sailor who has migrated into the interior and runs a ferry across a mighty river. The ferry is nothing more than a raft big enough to carry some horses, riders and maybe a wagon.

Rooster and Eula, the characters played by Wayne and Hepburn, actually Shanghai his ferry to take themselves downstream rather than merely across the river. Strother appears in only this one scene in the movie and his credit at the end of the film was not as a co-star but:


Strother Martin

Apparently Wayne complained about some of the dialogue in the film being awful, especially when they had to be repeated take after take. However, much of it has the antiquated cadence and inflection that was found in the original “True Grit” and was heavily praised in Charles Portis novel and the Coen Brothers version of the film.

McCoy: Do you know anything about rafts? There’s rough water down river.

Rooster Cogburn: I can ride. Can’t be much different.

McCoy: You ain’t no sailor. I can see that. Water is like a woman: sly and fickle. You gotta watch it every minute.

Rooster Cogburn: You a sailor?

McCoy: I was once. Shanghai McCoy’s my name. Been around the Horn, sailed the seven seas, seen everything, done everything, that’s how I know people are rotten. I’ve seen ’em all.

Eula: You’re wrong, old man. We’re made in God’s image, and goodness is in us. Even in you.

McCoy: Amazing! I never took you for a Bible-thumper.

Rooster Cogburn: Hold it. She is what she is ’cause she wants to be. That’s the way you take her. Like me.

McCoy: You’re wastin’ your time preachin’. You too, Sister. I’m a ship that can’t be salvaged.

When you put those words into the mouths of some of the great actors of the previous century, you get some sparkling moments. While some actors in the film appear to be barely making an effort because after all, who will be paying attention to their performance? Strother dives in with his usual gusto and nasally quality of voice and once again matches up well with the actors he is playing opposite of.

Jay made a half dozen pictures with the Duke and Wayne highly respected him. As far as I can tell, this was his lone role opposite Ms. Hepburn, and it does not seem as if he was planning on taking it lightly.

McCoy: You’re shippin’ out with a strange crew, captain.

Rooster Cogburn: I’ll match their mettle against most.

McCoy: I’m glad it’s your ship, not mine. Women can no more keep their mouths shut than a yellow-tailed catfish.

Rooster Cogburn: [pats McCoy’s stomach] Got to agree with you there.

In the original “True Grit” Strother appears as Col Stonehill, a more erudite conversational partner. He ends up on the losing end of matching wits with Kim Darby. His role in this film is much earthier and directly coarse, but still full of sideways insult and his peculiar vernacular.

The film is handsomely mounted with glorious locations that look beautiful on screen. Every time there is a wide vista, you will wish that they made movies like they did in the old days. That said, the story is repetitive and it meanders quite a bit as it gets to the key set piece near the end. John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn, shooting the rapids and firing a Gattling gun at their enemies. Bogie would be proud.

The movie is full of well known character actors including Anthony Zerbe, Richard Jordon, Paul Koslo, Jack Colvin and others. It is however, as usual, Strother Martin who stands out and makes the movie worth watching at least once.

Jay also has a line that many of us might identify with, especially these days:

Rooster Cogburn: You ain’t very hospitable.

McCoy: I ain’t got an ounce of goodwill in me, and that’s a fact. I hate everybody. I’m a cantankerous old man, and I know it. I like myself better’n anyone I ever met, that’s how come I took this job – to be alone with me!

There is a character who knows himself.